Michael Gove: Hands off our history

Image: tombeasley.co.uk

Education Secretary Michael Gove’s decision to remove Mary Seacole from the National Curriculum is merely symptomatic of his ideological assault upon our education system, a bid to ‘destroy the village to rebuild it’, so to speak, by first cutting the heart out of education as it exists and then remoulding it in a neoconservative fantasy.

At first, it looked like we were merely dealing with cuts and privatisation. The smashing up of trade union agreements and teachers’ pay and conditions, the removal of any level of democracy and accountability in schools, the sharpening up of elitism, and sweeping cuts to educational provision whilst our schools are sold off through the backdoor to profiteers under the guise of ‘academisation.’ Yet it is a remoulding of the curriculum itself that we are contending with, and one that speaks to a bygone age, a linear narrative where history was about kings and queens and the exploits of rich white men alone- a pedagogy that is itself part of history that should not be repeated.

I studied Mary Seacole briefly at school- the only black woman I was to come across in eleven years of history classes before looking at the Civil Rights Movement at GCSE. The domination of the history books by white men wasn’t something I even started to consider properly up until that point- I tacitly got on with learning what I was told, and thus a bonfire of illusions and a raft of independent reading and historical-political discovery had to take place before I could hope to study history in any academic depth worthy of giving the discipline its dues in the slightest. And yet the ‘old history’ persists. In the summer I investigated the role of women in the Peninsular War- two thousand camp followers embarked with a force of thirty six thousand troops in one of the most seminal campaigns in British military history. Two weeks of trawling through libraries and I had found one book about their contributions in the midst of about ten bookshelves worth of literature on the Napoleonic Wars. That one book held the camp followers to be ‘hysterical’, ‘undisciplined’, and was laden with other obsolescent stereotypes about women, at the same time as it told the story of Mrs. Reston, a rifleman’s wife who passed ammunition to the cannons, fetched food and water, when all around her were panicking, and then made several boat trips across the river to rescue her family and possessions, all under heavy fire and with the army in full retreat- and finished up her days in a Glasgow workhouse. The privations of women left to die in the snow during the withdrawal from Coruna, the exploits of the Spanish woman who was to become the only female officer in Wellington’s army.

The point to be drawn from this is that the contributions of women have been systematically erased for the most part from our historical pantheon – and black and ethnic minority stories destroyed by the muzzle of a sixteen-pounder gun. The reason I raised the Peninsular War example is because Gove wishes a leitmotif of ‘Britishness’ to be embedded within the narrative structure of secondary school history teaching. That is something I would thoroughly oppose; it comes dangerously close to indoctrination. But even if it was to be viable, it is quite clear that Gove’s ‘British story’ does not incorporate the struggles of its working class militants, the contributions of its women, the stories of its immigrants. It is not a Britishness that attempts to be inclusive whatsoever, and the Seacole incident is indicative of this. He wants us to stop apologising for British imperialism. That’s never something anyone ever did in my history lessons anyway, and were it the case, why should we not be apologetic for a colonial project that burned and slaughtered its way across the world from Ireland to India, continues to cause political and economic turmoil today, and whose victims’ sons and daughters are among those that go to our schools.

The Seacole decision was apparently committed for reasons of historical value and importance. As Simon Woolley points out:

“What makes this story fascinating is that it wasn’t just the officer and army class that sought to help Seacole after the war. It was estimated that more than 80,000 people came out to pay tribute to this woman.  When was the last time that amount of people –the size of Wembley stadium full, came to pay tribute to an ordinary woman?  I can’t remember either. By any standard Seacole was a great Victorian, that a creative teacher can wrap around subjects such as  the Crimean war, nursing, racial prejudice, and  above all that great human endeavour, particularly  by an extraordinary ordinary woman.”

The need for a constant cohesive historical narrative is a chimerical one, in any case. Prior to a history course that has any academic qualification at its endpoint, the purpose of history teaching should be to inspire interest in the subject and engage children and young people. The figures and periods of history we choose to do that must by necessity reflect the length and breadth of the diversity of both our pupils and our historical experience if such an endeavour is to be successful. I’d go further than just teaching Seacole. We should devote units and modules (bear in mind there’s 21 terms between the beginning of Year 7 and the end of A-Level) to womens’ history and gender relations, the history of class conflict, black and ethnic minority history- to do anything else is disingenuous to the roots of history itself as the story of recorded human experience. One man with one apparently very narrow perspective on academia should not be allowed to define what is ‘historically important.’ Especially when that man is responsible for perhaps the most widespread dismantling of secondary and tertiary education in British history.

(This petition has been started to keep Seacole on the curriculum, for all those interested.)

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