Evans, Richard J.: Tory interpretation of history

Evans, Richard J.

The wonderfulness of us (the Tory interpretation of history‘, London Review of Books, 17 March 2011

This article was brought to our attention by a reference in Clive Logan’s Supplementary Material to the Report of the Curriculum Review. It raises issues about the teaching and use of history which are universal (and have many similarities to what has occurred in Australia). The article recounts how the distinguished British historian, Simon Schama, resident in New York, was brought in to advise the Cameron government on how British history could be put at the centre of the school curriculum.

The first task of the curriculum, as Gove [then Secretary of Education] and Schama see it, is to foster a sense of British national identity. “At a moment fraught with the possibility of social and cultural division”, Schama writes, we need citizens “who grow up with a sense of our shared memory as a living, urgently present body of knowledge”. Or, as the popular historian Dominic Sandbrook puts it, we need to return to “the stories that make up a nation’s collective memory, that fire the imagination, that bind the generations” – “Alfred and the cakes” or “Drake and the Armada”. New Labour’s legacy, Gove asserts, has been a history curriculum that favours “themes” over “actual content”; what we need is a return to narrative history. “Our children”, Schama says, “are being short-changed of the patrimony of their story, which is to say the lineaments of the whole story, for there can be no true history that refuses to span the arc, no coherence without chronology”.

Evans goes on at some length about aspects of the British school curriculum before making another general point which is reminscent of the perspective of Gregory Melleuish also included in the Supplementary Material to the curriculum review report – world history but still giving pride of place to the history of the home country.

The choice of Schama to serve as the government’s chief adviser largely derives from his successful multi-part television history of Britain, broadcast 11 years ago. It presented history as narrative, in a way brilliantly suited to the medium. But what makes good TV doesn’t necessarily make for good teaching. A return to narrative in the classroom – to passive consumption instead of active critical engagement – is more likely to be a recipe for boredom and disaffection. Aware of the possibility that some might object to his overwhelming focus on British history, Schama has declared that “history’s long look at our national make-up” is “not an insular proposal” because it involves studying “the way Britain has conducted itself in the world beyond the shores of Albion” and asking how Americanised or European British national identity is. But that still doesn’t shift Britain from the centre of the picture.

Historians in Britain have argued about whether this approach leads to celebratory or self-congratulatory history as indeed, they have in Australia; this article provoked a number of comments from historians and others. Evans concludes:

History is by its nature a critical, sceptical discipline. Historians commonly see one of their main tasks as puncturing myths, demolishing orthodoxies and exposing politically motivated narratives that advance spurious claims to objectivity. Schama advocates the return of “storytelling in the classroom” as the “necessary condition” of debate and analysis. He is confident that a narrative approach doesn’t have to rule out analysis, since distinctions can be made “between just and unjust conflicts” and students can develop “analytical knowledge of the nature of power”. But simply telling children that British history has been full of conflict doesn’t tell them anything about the distortions of power; what they need to learn is scepticism about the narratives presented by historians, including of course Schama’s own account of British history.

 

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