“Facts”, squeaked Michael Gove this week, “I am saying we need to have facts in the curriculum – facts, knowledge.” Well, yes, quite. Up until this point, Sir – as a friend drolly elaborated – we have been learning mere whimsy. Mr Gove has a remarkable ability to make my eyes roll around my head of their own accord when I so much as glimpse him, so this statement was – for me – another swift entry into my growing book of his Oh Just Shut-Ups.
What grates – other than his eerie resemblance to Pob – is that I fear there is a kernel of truth in what he says. Now, hold your horses; it’s not enough to redeem the man, and in fact I’d not even grant him the iota of intellect to have recognized it himself, but as a History scholar up to my Masters degree I believe it empowers the person to learn the cool hard facts, in order to take on board the meaning. Mr Gove is a fool if he thinks that History teachers up and down the land are only prattling on about Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano – which, I’m sorry, is total bollocks – but we do need to make sure teachers are given the time and support to fill their gaps in knowledge when they do exist.
As a case in point – I have recently started working with an organization which provides teacher training in Holocaust education. The current Secondary school history curriculum for years 7-9 has only four compulsory topics, and the Holocaust is one of them. In a recent survey, over 82% of teachers admitted they were self-taught in the Holocaust – and half of them were using the wrong definition of the Holocaust to begin with. I don’t blame the teachers, but I do blame a trend which has increasingly placed emphasis on the themes, the lessons and the morals we take from History, over the certain ability to interpret facts and fictions to derive meaning. It’s become ok to teach the Holocaust purely as a lesson in values and judgment – don’t be racist, don’t be homophobic, don’t be a bully – and not as History. We need both. Sure, you know the Holocaust was wrong, but can you explain what happened and why?
When I was studying A Level History in a comprehensive in Derby, my teacher left the school in a flurry half-way through the final year. After we’d finished speculating that she was having an affair with the Head of the Department (“someone saw her car near his house!!”) I realized that there stood only 4 months between me and an exam on which my entry into University was hinged. There was every chance my school could fuck this up; and they did. My mind boggles when I imagine how they must have recruited him – Mr North, a former Prison Warden who studied a History BA in the library at Her Majesty’s Service, and during his self-taught nosedive into two millennia of gripping tales never once stepped out of the 20th Century. It was fair to say that his attempts to read directly from the textbook when we got onto the French Revolution were – at best – mildly comedic. To this day I can still remember telling him from the back of the class how to say Sans Culottes, Guillotine and Marie Antoinette. He’d never seen them written down before, let alone uttered out loud.
Ok, it’s an extreme example – albeit a true one – and as far as teachers go, Mr North is in the minority. However, the fact that this man knew nothing, still terrifies me. It terrifies me that my school was unconcerned with my need to know what actually happened during 1789 in order to fully grasp its consequences. How many other things do we not really need to know about in order to fully grasp their consequences?
Facts are important. No one knows that more than the teachers Gove is perpetually irritating. And I had to laugh when I saw the NASUWT teaching union response when they said that teachers “want another curriculum review like a hole in the head”. It’s not about reviewing the curriculum, Gove, nor is it blindly stuffing the current one with more facts for no reason other than that you appear to have had a dull light-bulb moment in which you realized they were quite good things. This about making the important connection between what we know and how we interpret it, particularly for teachers who are not given the support to become better at the knowing as well as the interpreting.
The current outcome is that we cling madly to living history, fearful of how we recall events without eyewitnesses to tell us their experiences. And it is too often the case that the loudest and most forthright historical figures from anything over 100 years will steer historical narrative through their interpretations too – nowhere is this more prominently seen than in the history of women who have been blotted out, cast aside, denied their voice.
There is so much to learn; let us revel in the knowns and the unknowns before we make up our minds. And if you’re wondering, despite Mr North’s best intentions and having been predicted top marks, I got a C in my A Level but remarkably still got into my first choice University to study it further. The rest, as they say, is History.