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Laurie Penny on Niall Ferguson and the curriculum: Michael Gove and the imperialists

By inviting Niall Ferguson to revise the history curriculum, the Tories reveal their nostalgia for imperialism.

The Tories want our children to be proud of Britain's imperial past. When the right-wing colonial historian Niall Ferguson told the Hay Festival last weekend that he would like to revise the school history curriculum to include "the rise of western domination of the world" as the "big story" of the past 500 years, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, leapt to his feet to praise Ferguson's "exciting" ideas -- and offer him the job.

Ferguson is a poster-boy for big stories about big empire, his books and broadcasting weaving Boys' Own-style tales about the British charging into the jungle and jolly well sorting out the natives. The Independent's Johann Hari, in his capacity as young bloodhound of the liberal left, sniffed out Ferguson's suspicious narrative of European cultural supremacy in a series of articles in 2006, calling him "a court historian for the imperial American hard right": Harvard-based Ferguson believes that the success of the British empire should be considered a model for US foreign policy.

This is exactly the sort of history that British conservatives think their children should be learning. "I am a great fan of Ferguson, and he is absolutely right," Michael Gove told the Guardian.

The new Education Secretary has declared his intention to set out a "traditionalist" curriculum "celebrating" Britain's achievements. Andrew Roberts, another historian lined up to advise on the new curriculum, has dined with South African white supremacists, defended the Amritsar Massacre and suggested that the Boers murdered in British concentration camps were killed by their own stupidity. It looks like this "celebratory" curriculum might turn out to be a bunting-and-bigotry party, heavy on the jelly and propaganda.

What should shock about these appointments is not just the suspect opinions of Roberts and Ferguson, but that the Tories have fundamentally misunderstood the entire purpose of history. History, properly taught, should lead young people to question and challenge their cultural inheritance rather than simply "celebrate" it.

"Studying the empire is important, because it is an international story, but we have to look at it from the perspective of those who were colonised as well as from the British perspective," said the historian and political biographer Anthony Seldon, who is also Master of Wellington College. "We live in an interconnected world, and one has to balance learning about British history with learning about other cultures."

The ways in which schools and governments structure and promote stories about a country's past, the crimes they conceal and the truths they twist, have a lasting effect on young minds. It is not for nothing that the most fearsome dictators of the 20th century, from Hitler to Chairman Mao, altered their school history curriculums as a matter of national urgency.

Even now, the school board of the state of Texas is rewriting the history syllabus to sanitise slavery and sideline figures such as Thomas Jefferson, who called for the separation of church and state. That the Tories, too, wish to return us to a "traditionalist" model of history teaching should thoroughly disabuse the left of the notion that the present-day Conservative Party has no ideological agenda.

The drive to rehabilitate a nostalgic vision of Britain's imperial past is part of the same bigoted discourse in which the new Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, recently described Afghanistan as "a broken 13th-century country". It appears to be forming Conservative thought at home and abroad.

This week, an ugly caricature of inner-city teenagers appeared on the Tory-affiliated website ConservativeHome. The post, which laments that in Hackney "the white middle-class people disappear as soon as it gets dark", is titled "How the east was lost" -- drawing an explicit parallel between the resistance of colonised populations to British military rule and resistance of voters in inner-London areas with large ethnic-minority populations to Conservative ideas. The writer parodies the accents and eating habits of Hackney teenagers with the revolted fascination of a Victorian colonel writing about the natives, implying that these "fatherless, swaggering, out-of-control" youths need a firm white Tory hand to keep them in line.

Michael Gove's wish to re-engineer how history is taught to children is, quite simply, about social control. It is part of a broader political discourse that seeks, ultimately, to replace the messy, multivalent web of Britain's cultural inheritance with one "big story" about dominance and hierarchy, of white over black, west over east, rich over poor.

But history is not about the big story, the single story, the story told by the overculture. History is not about "celebrating" the past, nor about making white kids feel good about their cultural inheritance. History is a process of exploring the legacy of the past, and questioning it -- including the ugly, uncomfortable parts. No wonder the Tories want to tear it up and start again.

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Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage