An Education Secretary with a warped view of history

By Symon Hill
May 27, 2010

In the many comments made about Michael Gove's appointment as Education Secretary, one area that has generally been overlooked is his unhealthy attitude to history teaching.

In an interview with the Christian current affairs magazine, Third Way, conducted only days before the election was called, Gove spoke of his passion for British history. I share a passion for British history and agree with him that Britain is a “wonderful place”. But I don't share his arrogant assertion that “this country, relative to all others that have ever existed, is such a wonderful place”. Someone who confidently states that British society is better than any other society ever is demonstrating a striking ability to shut his eyes to anything negative that does not fit in with his view of the world.

Equally alarming is Gove's dismissal of the role of “critical thinking skills” in history lessons. I loved history at school partly because it was one of the few subjects in which it was considered acceptable, even desirable, for people to hold different views. Realising that there are various ways of understanding the past can awaken recognition of the many ways of interpreting the present. For me, as for many others, this was vital in giving me the confidence to ask questions and to think for myself. These are qualities which Gove seems keen to discourage.

But Gove's most ridiculous comments concerned the role of freedom in British history. He said:

”The reason why we're free, and why Australia and Canada and America are free, the reason why in countries that are less free, like Zimbabwe, freedom still survives through an acknowledgement of the importance of contested elections and an independent judiciary, is because of what happened in this country over a thousand years."

Gove ignores the possibility that people in these countries might feel they have played a part in securing their own freedom. He implies that Britain is responsible for all the freedom that exists in the world. When mentioning Zimbabwe, he fails to connect a lack of freedom there with the legacy of British colonialism.

Like Michael Gove, I am proud that in Britain we are able to enjoy comparatively high levels of democracy and political liberty. But Gove does not mention why this is the case. We have relative democracy in this country because people have gone out and campaigned for it. Chartists and suffragettes, levellers and trade unionists, ordinary people who insist that things are not fair, have been prepared to stand up, speak out and change the system. They have done so in the face of opposition from the privileged and the powerful who benefit from keeping things the way they are.

In other words, these freedoms have been achieved in the teeth of opposition from people like Michael Gove. It's no surprise that he wants to get rid of the critical thinking that enables people to see that progressive political change comes from below, and never from above.

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