So the centenary of WW1 is coming. At uni I found I had to study much of it in shortened chunks, punctuated by five minutes of hugging something fluffy before returning against to the library shelves and tales of mud and guns, gas and misery. It was also, like every other major conflict in the history of man, horrendously complicated, and full of all the usual mixtures of cock-up, jingoism, bravery, valour, stupidity, passion, confusion and easily transmissible diseases that dogs most of military history. No war is glorious, nor has Britain really done much military for the last… oooh… ever… which didn’t have at least some smear of imperial brutality about it. Between 1914-18, millions of men died for a cause that was tricky to pin down in the first place, guided by generals whose methods were anywhere between courageous or insane, and possibly both.
Yet! At this time and into this debate, wades once again our glorious leader, Michael Gove, Education Secretary for the UK. In an article entitled ‘Why Does the Left Insist on Belittling True British Heroes’ this illustrious politician lays out his view that the history of the First World War has been corrupted by a left-wing historical agenda which paints the war, not as a patriotic and heroic endeavour against despotism, but as a bloody farce in which millions died for questionable causes. Reading the article with gritted teeth, there was enough in it to already make the historian inside weep (the Somme was a ‘precursor to victory’ apparently, requiring only the loss of a million lives to achieve… well… nothing… but it was okay, because half a million ordinary German soldiers died which was good, because ‘victory’ is definitely measurable in the butchered lives of ordinary men… anyway….) … he then goes on to attack dramas and even comedy for portraying WW1 as ‘a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.’ Which. To be honest. Much of it was.
Now! (You may ask…) Are you, Kate Griffin, not also a left-wing-sometime-student-of-history?
Sure. Sure I am. And I did enough historiography to know that every historian looks at history through the prism of their own world view. But a good historian knows this, and does everything they can to fight it, and to enhance this process there is debate, and the evolution of ideas, and the gathering of evidence, and almost never a consensus but usually a well-respected view backed up with decent source material. For decades, the First World War was taught as a triumph of Plucky British soldiers led by a Noble Elite against the Hideous Hun, and it was only after the Treaty of Versailles had indirectly helped Hitler come to power, and Empires had fallen and the old order changeth unto the new, that people began to question this nationalist view, and embrace complexity, and complexity is not kind to words like ‘patriotism, honour and courage’.
My views are not made somehow invalid because I come from a certain standpoint; so long as I listen to the views of other and always have good, reputable sources from which I take my data. Yet our Education Secretary, who himself uttered the immortal words ‘please don’t put your ideology before our children’s interests’ seems to be merrily imposing a view of history that is highly ideological, and has in it no basis of evidence or sympathy for complexity.
In a historian this would be a Fail. In a man who has power over the country’s education, this is a catastrophe. History is not about ‘national identity’ nor ‘island history’. Sure, it can teach us these things, it can tell us where we’ve been and that is always a helpful guide for where we’re going. But history is about debate. It is about weighing up evidence and steering that fine path between what that evidence might mean, and what others think of it. It is not a tool for patriotism, nor should it be, since one of the great lessons of history is that jingoism and the ‘honour’ of those elites whose business was war, caused little save death and destruction throughout the history of man. I cannot help but remember how one of the greatest anti-war books of all time, All Quiet on the Western Front, was burned en-mass for its ‘anti-patriotic’ depiction of that conflict, at the order, of course, of Hitler.
Now our government is not even close to that particular imagery, but then again, Michael Gove has the power to dictate syllabuses. He can determine what children learn and what they do not, and what difference is it to a child if a book is denied them for being quietly deemed unsuitable by government body, or if it is burnt more openly in the streets? Education should not just teach us facts, but rather should teach us to look for ourselves for our own answers, and the Education Secretary has the power to prevent that instinct ever being imbued.
And even if I weren’t a historian, is Michael Gove really attacking Blackadder? Seriously? He takes as the centre piece of his argument about the view of WW1, a comedy set in the trenches – a comedy, by the by, with far greater apt social debate than most dramas set in a similar vein, and attacks it for not being patriotic enough? Even if I wouldn’t fight for historical good process, I will stand up and scream from the rooftops defend our comedies! – for comedy and satire has the power nail the very heart of all things that are ridiculous, to de-puff puffed-up men, and surely our government right now is ridiculous, and jingoism is laughable, and elitism still dominates too much of our society? Attack comedy, and you attack one of the greatest tools of free speech.
All this from a government that seeks ever more to find ways to count children, to at younger and younger ages find tests for them to fail, syllabuses they must fulfil, and statistics they must fall within, and if the child fails it is not the fault of the system for trying to squeeze them into some alien shape, but rather the teachers have failed. Or the school has failed. Or the parents have failed. Or someone – preferably someone whose voice is not spoken for – has failed, so long as it is not our government.
A few months ago, a comedian called Russell Brand urged people not to vote, arguing there were no good political parties to vote for. In a sense, he had a point, as there seem to be no leaders in power right now who see beyond ideology or their own private power – but then again, I think he was wrong. I think we should not only vote, but we should attend political meetings. We should go along to our local Tory party groups, or Labour, or Green, or whoever, and stand up and say, ‘here I am, this is what I think’ and take politics back for ourselves. Because at the end of the day, government shouldn’t be about left wing or right wing or patriotic or nationalistic or any other ‘ism’ or ‘istic’… it should be about us.