Gove may write Mary Seacole out of history

Pic: Simon Harriyott 

Mary Seacole, the ‘black Florence Nightingale’, may be removed from the national curriculum raising the question, whose history are we teaching?

With a revealing use of pronouns, Michael Gove, Minister for Education told the Conservative Party conference in 2010: “Children are growing up ignorant of one of the most inspiring stories I know – the history of our United Kingdom.”

As any good History graduate knows, the human past is a useful thing: a tabula rasa on which to inscribe ideological tales. By answering questions of individual and collective identity, history can bind a group of potentially very different people. Ofsted sees school history as ‘useful’ and ‘relevant’ for exactly this reason, it empowers children to: “reach an informed understanding of, and respect for, their own and each other’s identities”.

Until recently ‘the history of great men’, had been set aside in favour of the in-depth study of individual moments. Gove, apparently seething that Churchill was not on the syllabus, has turned back the clock on that, with plans for a national narrative of 200 great Britons. The Sunday Times giddily announced ‘School history puts back 1066 and all that’.

But if you teach British history through historical figures, it will be the history of men. White men. “Mary Woolstencroft is a prime example,” says Dr Lucy Robinson, lecturer of History at Sussex University. “She’s not the only woman in history to think about politics, but at points down the line, people have gone, ‘We need another woman in here.’” If Seacole’s place isn’t saved, Elizabeth and Victoria may well be the only female names on the syllabus.

Like much about this very Victorian government, their proposed version of history is, ironically, backward looking. Historians have spent the last forty years resisting grand narratives, which tend only to have space for the structures, experiences and institutions of the dominant hierarchies.

The passing of Eric Hobsbawm, the pillar of history in the Left’s academic pantheon, just previous to Gove’s onslaught seems significant. For him, history was about agency: collective stories could empower communities and inspire individuals. One teacher recently told the story of a boy in her class, having been taught about Seacole, asking: ‘She looks like me – did she really do all that?’

Writing for ELL, it is impossible to ignore the long shadow of the riots of 2011. Croydon, Lewisham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney are some of the most diverse, and deprived, boroughs in the country. They also played host to some of the saddest scenes from the unrest, predominantly acted out by a younger generation.

Unlike the early-80’s ‘race riots’ of Brixton and further afield, the summer of 2011 didn’t see violent reactions to an oppressive or non-representative social structure. Oh no, this was about kids after a new pair of trainers. But history is a convenient place to bury your sins. We don’t have race riots any more, the Tories tell us. We learnt from our mistakes. While at the time, Thatcher attacked weed and gang culture as the root of the unrest.

By offering a patchwork of figures, experiences, and events that schoolchildren, with their own diverse backgrounds, can navigate as they choose, history can aid social inclusion. Conversely, by offering a sole you’re-in-or-you’re-out narrative, the recent social unrest may well repeat itself. And when you consider that the majority of London’s schoolchildren are now non-white, you can’t help but think the posh white boys must have got this one wrong.

But pull back a little, take a look at the speed and depth with which this government has already punished those that don’t fit their bill – the demonisation of the poor and the withdrawal of their benefits, the social cleansing of inner-cities set to commence with the universal benefit cap, and the swinging immigration limits – and you get a pretty worrying sense of a masterplan.


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