The history boys

We need to go beyond liberal criticisms of Tory and neo-Liberal views of history, writes James Turley

So far David Cameron’s government has lived a double life. On the one hand, it has been monomaniacal in its pursuit of a hyper-Thatcherite attack on the public sector; on the other, it has been a faintly ridiculous Tory parody of Blairism.

There is the reliance on meaningless buzzwords (the ‘Big Society’, the ‘New Politics’), the carefully photogenic presentation, the youthful cronies - and last but not least, the publicity-friendly ‘big tent’ approach to division of labour. Not only does this government include Liberal Democrats on the fast track to collective political suicide, but a number of Labour-right turncoats.

The list would not be complete without a celebrity intellectual, of course - enter Simon Schama, popular historian par excellence. This author of a number of readable if rambling studies in mainstream history, and writer-presenter of a number of BBC series down the years, has been roped in by the loathsome Michael Gove to give the history curriculum a once-over.

From a certain technical angle, it is perhaps not that bad an appointment. After all, millions tuned in to see his 15-part History of Britain series on the Beeb, entirely voluntarily. Perhaps he can interest the captive audience of school students as well. Yet the title of that series is, in a sense, the Tory sting in the tail - Schama’s appointment is aimed at producing a narrative history of Britain specifically for schools. It is that which interests Gove and Cameron - not his skills as an academic or pedagogue.

I will not focus on the chequered political character of Schama himself - he is, as is well known, pro-Israel (though not in the same league as Zionism’s favoured attack dogs in the west); he is ostensibly a Labour man, though on the right of that party, but was an opponent of the Iraq war. His interests range a lot wider than insular histories of our island nation, and he has published on art and the Dutch empire, as well as produced TV shows on America.

History: Tory and neo-liberal

The problem is more about history in contemporary capitalism - and its uses in that foremost of ideological apparatuses, the education system. Though very definitely a follower of Cameron, Gove represents something of the hard-Tory essence of the latter’s world-view. It is not by accident that his policies have caused the most discord in the camp of his Lib Dem coalition partners - the much touted ‘free schools’ project, as well as his intent to massively extend the academy programme, are both fairly naked attempts at backdoor privatisation and a way of handing schools gift-wrapped to religious and reactionary organisations.

It is unsurprising, then, to find him attempting to force history teaching into a modern Tory mould. The inculcation of all students into the ‘national community’, such as it is, is the classic aim of British chauvinism in terms of education - though these ideas were more commonly associated with patrician liberals such as Matthew Arnold (1822-88) in former times, it is the Tories who have carried the flame in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Arnold’s panacea for class discontent was primarily the study of great English literature. The aristocracy held a monopoly on the classical languages; under those circumstances, the ‘middle classes’ (that is, the bourgeoisie) had become pretty much devoid of culture. Far from looking up to the latter as their natural superiors, the workers had developed a higher level of culture. They were becoming restless (Arnold’s great work, Culture and anarchy, coincided with a Chartist riot in Hyde Park); the natural result was anarchy.

It seems pretty far-fetched, and indeed it is; but the underlying idea, that a certain kind of education can indirectly teach the virtues proper to one’s place in society, has any number of applications. Tory history is an obvious one - the student is taught that he or she is one of many descendents of a national community thousands of years old. One, furthermore, need not depart too far from the truth to get across the message that there have always been those who rule and those who are ruled, with the implied lesson that this will always be so.

Against Tory history, it is worth posing what I will call neo-liberal history. Once again, this is one aspect of a phenomenon endemic to the arts and humanities in schools (and, in this case, universities). The official ideology of neoliberalism is what used to be called ‘the American dream’ and, since the Thatcher-Blairite co-option of anodyne yuppie jargon, has been known as ‘aspiration’ - that anyone, regardless of race, creed, sex or class can aspire to run their own Fortune 500 company (or at least their own home, or at least that part of their own home they have not borrowed from a bank).

At the level of institutions, the effects of neo-liberalism are well documented. They, too, are supposed to ‘aspire’, to excel against all their ‘competitors’. The consequence is the development of an enormous, inert bureaucracy whose role is to measure how well schools (or hospitals, etc) are competing. With the middle-managers come targets, which invariably have all the subtlety of Michael Gove’s intellect.

To abstract this from the real lived history of educational practices, one can see the natural consequences - one bit of history is quite as good as another. What is important, officially, is for students to leave school with the proper ‘skills’ to enable them to succeed in a globalised world. What is important in reality is that schools meet their targets, and climb over each others’ bodies up the league tables. Neither imperative recommends King Alfred as an object of study over Genghis Khan.

There are powerful objective reasons for both; capitalism is global but not as globalised as it thinks, and still relies on the division of the world into a system of nation-states (though the interactions between nation and state are rather more complex than this phrase allows). The internal coherence of these states has to find some kind of outlet as ideology. On the other hand, capital has no nation - and has ideological imperatives often at variance with those of the state.

The British cult of the Führer

This contradiction leads to some bizarre compromises. The clearest example on the British history curriculum bears the name of Adolf Hitler. In many schools, Hitler dominates not much less teaching time for history students than he did in Germany in the 1930s - though this time it is not as a saviour of the Volk so much as a unique historical singularity of radical evil. Personally speaking, I took history to A-level - and was taught one unit or another on the Hitler regime for the last five consecutive years of school.

On closer inspection, it is clear that Hitler ticks all the boxes. From the Tory point of view, the war against Germany of 1939-45 is ‘our finest hour’, the crowning moment of the national myth. (No doubt World War II will make it into Schama’s plan.) From the neo-liberal point of view, it can be presented as a neat, bite sized chunk of history. It begins with the Treaty of Versailles; it ends with the Soviet tanks rolling into Berlin. Nazi Germany left behind both an enormous bureaucratic paper trail on everything from food imports to mass extermination, and an even longer trail of historical writing as the world tried to come to terms with its barbarity; thus it is ideal for mundane source analysis exercises, which can then be rapidly and superficially assessed for the benefit of the targets-league tables bureaucracy.

Hitler is useful to both, meanwhile, as - to put it mildly - an idiosyncratic individual by today’s standards. Between his genocidal hatred of Jews, his wild-eyed orations and even his allegedly perverse sexual inclinations, teachers are conveniently absolved from placing him in a broader context than strictly necessary.

Taking up the slack

For Marxists, of course, this is not some petty squabble between different factions of the ruling class to recount for our amusement. The critical analysis of history is the keystone of our theory, which proceeds from the axiom: “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” Our movement’s own history includes innumerable workers’ education societies independent of the state, and a number of projects - however flawed they may have been in practice - dedicated to concentrated theoretical elucidation of history in terms useful to our movement.

We need, therefore, to go beyond standard liberal criticisms both of the Tory view of history - which in substance amounts to an enormous whitewash - and the neo-liberal view, which more deviously divorces history from the underlying dynamics of its movement. Many lament the ‘Tesco-fication’ of qualifications; that is, their increasingly instrumental character in preparing students for mundane labour, whether white-collar or blue. Though the connection is often obscured, many also lament the Kafkaesque regimes of tests and targets that has steadily expanded over the last few decades. To avoid slipping into a Toryish nostalgia requires an alternative vision, not just of the history curriculum, but the purpose and methods of education as a whole.

In the meantime, it means taking up the slack ourselves. By educating each other, and challenging bourgeois myths, we arm ourselves for revolutionary work.