Entry from August 29, 2011

Just as they are here, in Britain the public prints — perhaps these should now be called the public screens — are periodically agitated by concern over a decline in the study of history among the young. Here there was a flurry of such concern back in June, but in Britain it usually coincides with the August release of results on the national examination known as the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) given to 16-year-olds. Michael Gove, the Minister for Education in the coalition government has written and spoken much about this decline and the political dangers to a people who don’t know their own history. In yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph Jenny McCartney wrote that

History is the most inescapable of subjects: we inherit it, we make it, and we are fated to become part of it. In our education system, however, its study is increasingly neglected: indeed, in a large number of British schools, the end of history is already a reality. Last year, a total of 159 secondary schools did not put a single pupil forward for history GCSE. In state comprehensives, the number of pupils taking the subject has fallen to 29.9 per cent; in private schools, it has dipped to 47.7 per cent. The only sector where numbers are rising is state grammars, where it is taken by 54.8 per cent. What the statistics suggest is that the least well-off pupils are also fated to be the most ignorant both of their personal cultural history, and that of the country in which they live.

All this is a prelude to Miss McCartney’s interesting idea that the rioters of London and other British cities in recent days would have been inhibited from rioting by a sense of their ethnic histories and pride in the civil rights movement.

Meanwhile, over at the more liberal Observer Tristram Hunt, who has been the Labour Member of Parliament for Stoke City since the general election of 2010, grandly observes that “If we have no history, we have no future” and illustrates his own concern for the decline of history among the lower socio-economic classes by an account of his own history education at the posh but progressive University College School in Hampstead, North London (motto: Paulatim sed Firmiter or “steadily but surely”). In particular, he remembers his experience there as a student of Friedrich Engels’s classic, The Condition of the Working Class in England — which deals with what Engels portrayed as the immiseration of mill workers in Manchester by “capitalists” in the 1840s. This was

the text which my inspirational history teacher, Mr Mackintosh, decided it would be interesting for a class of 11-year-olds to study. So, week by week, we travelled through the mills, workhouses and lodging rooms of urbanising England; the accounts of effluent-bubbling streams, smog-laden skies and overcrowded tenements. We met typhus-ridden Irish immigrants and philistine factory owners. And it was wonderful: a beguiling mixture of gore and grime along with a sense of the visceral, foreign, unknowable past which we all wanted to get our hands on.

Dr. Hunt, who has since gone on to write a biography of Engels, has no interest in the doubt cast upon the latter’s account (and the many histories derived from it) by F.A. Hayek’s Capitalism and the Historians, and he proceeds to write, seemingly unaware of any irony, that “George Orwell”s Nineteen Eighty-Four had it right. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past’.”

Of course, “the party slogan” refers to the manipulation of the past by a totalitarian state to serve its purposes and to maximize its control not just over people’s behavior but over their minds as well — not unlike Engels’s account of 1840s Manchester which has been used ever since to justify the most appalling tyrannies the world has known. The shadow of Big Brother casts into a different light Dr Hunt’s concern for the poshification of history teaching in the UK. He may call for instruction in “the discordant, uncomfortable, jarring voices of the past, as well as Michael Gove’s homely tales of national heroism. Peterloo as well as Pitt the Younger,” but what really concerns him is that the left-wing version of British history might no longer be available to indoctrinate notionally “working class” youth into those political orthodoxies of the 1930s which have paradoxically remained ever since the crumbling foundation on which the “progressive” ratchet — paulatim sed firmiter — rests. I’ve always been a big believer in teaching history to school-children, but for them as for everyone else we now have to ask first, “Which history?”

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