Outrage at Michael Gove shows that historians trump scientists at indignation

© Policy Exchange
© Policy Exchange

IT is not very often that historians get to act like scientists. History is a field of interpretation, nuance and theory, and while evidence is the blood in its limbs, a historian would rarely claim to use a word like “true” in same way as a scientist.  Gravity, evolution: true. Agincourt, Pankhurst: contested. A crude summation, but the sciences and humanities operate in different (though not exclusive nor always competing) planes of experience.

So it was with some relish this week that historians got to pull out the “not true” card, stored often in the back pocket for Holocaust deniers and let-them-eat-cakeists, to attack Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, for his comments on World War One. Scientists dip into that pocket with greater ease to batter climate change deniers, Creationists, proponents of Intelligent Design, and so on. This time, Professor Richard Evans, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, and Tristram Hunt MP, Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, led the charge from the historians’ trenches.

Gove said that interpretations of World War One as a ‘misbegotten shambles’ are left-wing myths, propagated by Marxist academics and Blackadder, ubiquitous in school classrooms, and that the war was ‘just’, fought to repel German imperialism. It is a view as simplistic as it is contrived, contrarian point-scoring designed to out-muscle Labour in the mawkish, national festival of commemoration to come in 2014, imbibed with a zest of anti-European paranoia and British protectionism: let’s have our memorial. Which party can appear the most British? It was, after all, a British war. Britain alone. Not the 17 other nations who sent soldiers to the Triple Entente. Not the Australians who, having not been granted the right to declare war by the British empire (so much for German imperialism), were forced to send thousands of combatants as part of the war effort, many of whom were sent to a slaughter at Gallipoli by broadly inept British generals.

As Evans pointed out, the British fought alongside a regime, in the form of Tsar Nicholas II’s Russia, that was arguably more despotic than the Kaiser’s Germany as was no more a democracy than their enemy. In 1914, only 40% of adult males had the vote – unlike 100% of Germans. Nor do the left run criticism of the war: historians Niall Ferguson and Max Hastings – not so much your average anarcho-syndicalists – have been largely critical of British commanders.

Still, lets not let facts get in the way of history. Or truth. While Gove’s attack on how we teach history is welcome – Blackadder is a text, not necessarily an authority –  and he is right to point out that the caricature of the war’s commanding officers, like Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘scarlet Majors’ who, after sending men over the trenches to be mown down, would ‘toddle safely home and die – in bed’, may not be all that helpful for historical scholarship. Iconoclasm is a valid tool of the historian. But, crumbs, Michael. I think most historians had worked that out. In the 1920s.

Reaction to Gove shows us much. Historians enjoy the opportunity to be unequivocal, to deliver a helping of outrage based on a serious body of all but indisputable evidence. Scientists, though it is easier for them, are not always as good at this. They have more on their plate, perhaps, with homeopathy, left-side, right-side brain nonsense, Darwin, global temperature rises etc. Our planet burning itself up with fever is largely more important than whether the Wild West really was a bit like the Wild West or not like the Wild West or in part like the Wild West (and whether that semiotic approach is at best limited, and does it denigrate materialist interpretations? And what about socio-economic factors? History is fun).

Perhaps scientists are spread more thinly, battling the fires of misinformation across the world such that historians’ responses to Gove seemed more dramatically audible because they were so concentrated. Perhaps, as Professor Lisa Jardine says, it’s that humanities graduates run the media and can more readily digest and transmit arguments within intellectual history than developments in particle physics. But Gove gave historians the chance to enjoy a run of indignation, harnessed to a rare sighting in history: something that looks a bit like historical truth.

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Why is Michael Gove ignoring pupils with learning disabilities?

Photo: Regional Cabinet via Flickr

When Michael Gove officially floated his GCSE reforms to the Commons this week, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that his most important breakthrough was to be making the school-leavers’ exams hard again, like they were in the sepia past, so widespread is the assumption that exams are getting easier, children thicker. Britain, the poor lamb, in the clutches of a coursework cheating epidemic, dads up and down our grey isles, wide-eyed and fervent, scribbling out little Johnny’s history homework. Or naughty Sally, hungrily vacuuming Wikipedia and printing it off as her own work. Lest any journalist be guilty of that.

Say what you like about Gove and do not forget that he is an apt and ruthless homogeniser: pupils, down to the last dim-witted gumchewer to leave school this summer, have been getting away with it for too long. Their older brothers and sisters Had It So Good with all their lovely passes. All those C grades. Knowledge on credit. But now somebody has to pay it back, to atone for this opulence. The ones suffering, and how unlike the Tories for this, are the disabled. And the British media are complicit.

You see, in harping on about GCSEs given out free with the Metro for the past twenty years, what we miss is how tough many students find the very fabric of our education system. One in ten UK children has dyslexia, a disability which affects how one reads, counts, spells and organises thoughts. In an exam, this can play havoc with how one structures written answers, processes information, recalls from memory or, say, weighs up contributing or overlapping factors.

An example: last June, an AQA GCSE history paper asked candidates: ‘Which was the more important reason for the outbreak of the First World War in 1914: the assassination of Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, or the Schlieffen Plan?’ Now, in writing an essay response to this end, with reduced or severely limited ability to either spell correctly, remember important data, rank causes, structure an argument, place an introduction or conclusion in their correct context, write quickly, or a combination of any/all of these, one might reasonably think this to be something of an uneven playing field. Moreover, the government is compelled not to discriminate by the Equality Act 2010 and the UN’s 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Coursework, though it has detractors, offers at least a far less time-sensitive framework for students who, with dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or ADHD, some of which regularly occur contemporaneously, can enjoy an education system that tests them fairly. Pupils with learning disabilities perform better in modular courses, with less time pressure, allowing for continuous assessment. But this was too pleasant. Too dynamic. Too sympathetic.

Three children in every class (of thirty) have a disability which prevents or hinders them from having a fair education. And yet the most significant effect of these reforms is being ignored by a press obsessed with intergenerational warfare, in slamming kids today for heinously failing in their obligation to be taught well.

When these disabilities are diagnosed, support is given to pupils: extra time in exams, help with spelling, learning aids, and so on. But many cases go undiagnosed until university or long into adult life. Those who aren’t spotted and helped at an early stage can struggle to pass the kinds of exams Gove wants to make the one and only yardstick for learning success. And when you consider how heavily employers and university/college admissions staff are now being forced to place their faith in examinations, it can mean nought but a disadvantage to those for whom exams are an unfair and oppressive form of testing. We already know that the learning disabled are severely over-represented in the criminal justice system and among the unemployed. Why persist with a cruel reform that will only punish them further?

On top of this, the NHS does not yet recognise dyslexia as a disability, meaning that education institutions do always not take a lead in helping pupils to be diagnosed, making it often only available to the rich and regularly not until later in life, such as at universities, who tend to have more targeted help and can often finance the costs of diagnosis and support.

We cannot begin to challenge discrimination against the learning disabled in schools and workplaces while we allow an education system to exist which treats their disadvantage with contempt or while we jam our fingers in our ears. The number of newspapers and their websites that carried this warning this week: zero. And while we have a press that stays silent on the disadvantaged, we will not be able to help the learning disabled struggling under the leaden foot of the Education Secretary’s privilege.

(This piece is also on the Huffington Post’s website, just about here.)