Schama, Narrative History and the Conservatives

I was not greatly surprised when the new Conservative/Liberal coalition government looked to Professor Simon Schama and announced him as their ‘special government advisor’ for the teaching of history in British schools. Simon Schama probably needs no introduction to most people interested in this blog. Alongside the likes of David Starkey, he is a heavyweight of public history writing and broadcasting. Popular, accessible and prolific, he is most famous for the popular series ‘History of Britain’ which spearheaded something of a revival in history programming on British television in the last decade. Indeed, the popularity of history programming, of all shapes and sizes, shows no sign of waning and BBC2 seem to be going all guns on the history front this November. While being based in America for some considerable years, he has remained a mainstay in our media and in particular in coverage of certain key national/political events; providing punditry on state occasions such as the Golden Jubilee, the Queen Mother’s funeral and the General Election. I am sure that this explains some of his appeal to the Tories. Mostly though it is Schama’s clear support of a storytelling approach to the teaching of history that has won him in this role (interestingly according to this article it could have been Niall Ferguson).

The announcement was made on 5 October 2010 by Michael Gove the newly appointed Secretary of State for Education. Gove hailed the move as the start of a change in direction for the treatment of history in schools, a move away from Labour’s skill based, supposedly ‘Hitler and Henry’ obsessed curriculum, to a new age of sweeping, narrative history.

This is what Gove said in his conference speech in October:

But then, how many of our students are learning the lessons of history?

One of the under-appreciated tragedies of our time has been the sundering of our society from its past.

Children are growing up ignorant of one of the most inspiring stories I know – the history of our United Kingdom.

Our history has moments of pride, and shame, but unless we fully understand the struggles of the past we will not properly value the liberties of the present.

The current approach we have to history denies children the opportunity to hear our island story. Children are given a mix of topics at primary, a cursory run through Henry the Eighth and Hitler at secondary and many give up the subject at 14, without knowing how the vivid episodes of our past become a connected narrative. Well, this trashing of our past has to stop.

I am delighted to announce today that Professor Simon Schama has agreed to advise us on how we can put British history at the heart of a revived national curriculum.

At the time, to my horror, I found myself agreeing with some of his points. I too have worried that history has moved to the margins of the curriculum, specifically in secondary schools, and that children do not leave school with a feel for the chronology of British history. With the greatest of respect to my history teachers, some of whom I remember fondly for teaching such a daydreamer as I, my education did not instill much of the excitement in history that I have now. Certainly I learnt about primary sources, analysis and empathy, but the subject was so very staccato. I was, and in some respects remain, ignorant about whole swathes of our history. Currently I’m learning a great deal (mostly via history blogs) about Georgian history and the Enlightenment, an area untouched during my education and which for a long time sat as an unexplained gap between Charles I and the Victorians. Anecdotally I understand that things have not radically changed in the subsequent decade (ahem, or so). If anything I learnt the majesty, the grand sweep, of British history elsewhere; on television, in books, on the silver screen.

I did not wholly throw away the shackles of my distaste for Michael Gove at this conference pronouncement, oh no. Some of what he said set alarm bells ringing in my mind. In particular it is the phrase ‘our island history’ that fills me with a certain amount of dread. Who’s ‘island history’ exactly? If the tale is the hoary old one of the plucky English, beset on all sides by those horrible Europeans, or if it is a teleological retelling of the past from a nation-state perspective, then it could be more regressive than the staccato of isolated periods taught today. It depends whose narrative it is and what tale they are trying to tell. Would the Conservatives be more guilty of pushing an agenda than New Labour were? Well Labour were much more interested in embedding skills than moulding a national tale. So, as much as I yearn for a greater narrative approach I fear the threat of what could be Gove’s conservative narrative. Also, despite the misgivings above, I do not think the current curriculum has it totally wrong. A lot of good history is taught in schools and we certainly do not neglect British history. Of the six topic areas taught at Primary School (age 5-11) four of these (Invaders & Settlers, Britain since 1930 i.e. WW2, the Tudors and Local History) are about the Conservatives blessed ‘Isle’. Are our history teachers really ‘trashing… our past’, no not really.

With these thoughts in mind it was with great interest that I read Simon Schama’s first article setting out his thoughts on the project (Guardian, 09/11/2010). It was a fascinating, messy, enthusiastic article, which gave us a glimpse into where he is coming from. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t give firm details of how the project will proceed and displays some highly wishful thinking about the expansion of history in the curriculum that I am very skeptical will happen.  Schama does indeed argue for a narrative history, as Gove set out above, but focuses very keenly on its importance in not just capturing the imagination, not just encouraging a broader identity but also as a tool for unlocking individual social consciousness:

Unless they [children] can be won to history, their imagination will be held hostage in the cage of eternal Now: the flickering instant that’s gone as soon as it has arrived. They will thus remain, as Cicero warned, permanent children, for ever innocent of whence they have come and correspondingly unconcerned or, worse, fatalistic about where they might end up.

As I read Schama’s arguments I was less concerned about the danger of a simplistic overarching narrative, of ‘an agenda’, being enforced. This particular passage addresses that concern:

A truly capacious British history will not be the feeder of identity politics but its dissolvent. In the last resort, all serious history is about entering the lives of others, separated by place and time. It is the greatest, least sentimental, least politically correct tutor of tolerance.

It still leaves us with the thorny question of what is that capacious British history? Schama offers us the six events in history that he would use as the backbone of the narrative:

1.             The murder of Thomas Becket

2.             The Black Death and the peasants revolt

3.             The execution of King Charles

4.             The loss of the Americas and capture of the Eastern Empire

5.             The Irish Wars

6.              The Opium Wars

In truth, these feel a little mischievous and I doubt Professor Schama would be arguing particularly hard for his final choice if push came to shove. The list doesn’t really clarify what type of narrative he is telling, it certainly seems to focus on civic and religious controversy or tumult, which echoes his opening few paragraphs:

So that inquiry [that is the nature of history] is not the uncritical genealogy of the Wonderfulness of Us, but it is, indispensably, an understanding of the identity of us. The endurance of British history’s rich and rowdy discord is, in fact, the antidote to civic complacency, the condition of the irreverent freedom that’s our special boast.

It also demonstrates that for all the talk of narrative there has to meat on the narrative bone, some focus on particular events/times/people. Do these events really give us a narrative, a cohesive story? On their own they could simply be as disjointed as the current curriculum.

There is another danger in this pursuit of a narrative approach and that is that it could so easily lead toward what you might call ‘grand history’. History as the tale of great people and landmark events, as if that is the only way to grab attention (a touch of the Hitler and the Henrys). I personally do enjoy reading and writing about history of power and broader social and political changes. But what is barely touched in Schama’s article is the extent to which social history will play a role, that is the investigation of the life of everyday people, in everyday situations. This type of history can be more captivating and more insightful in challenging preconceptions about gender, ethnic and sexual politics than any musings on the trappings of power or national identity. Just visit www.georgianlondon.com for a host of posts that demonstrate this. Looking to the diversity and tumult of society that churns so familiar beneath the monolithic ‘sweep’ of ‘our island history’ and you’ll captivate the mind of children and adults alike. I’d like to see more talk about that.

I’m a little more reassured about Schama’s aims in promoting ‘narrative’ history, but I’m yet to see what that narrative will be. Initial criticism of Schama’s appointment focused on the impression that those on the frontline of teaching and learning history were being marginalised in favour of a publicity stunt. However, Schama talks about the need to draw on just those people to have the debate about what should be included. Personally, I like the idea of a benign dictator pushing the agenda forward and we could do a lot worse than Simon Schama.

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