The Books Interview: David Cannadine

Your book The Right Kind of History examines the teaching of history in English schools in the 20th century. How would you summarise what you found?
It was interesting to notice that a lot of the arguments that are made now about the teaching of history - should it be a cheerleading narrative; should it be a more critical account of the nation; should it be about this nation or the nations of the world; is it about knowledge or skills? - have been around for as long as history as a subject has been around.

In a sense, that's no surprise. I think it may be that the teaching of history has been more controversial than the teaching of other subjects.

Why do you think that is?
Presumably, geometry in Vancouver or Rio de Janeiro or Perth is the same subject and French and physics and economics are the same subjects. Whereas what's different about history - and this also may be true of literature as the other exception - is that there isn't a global syllabus on which most people are sort of agreed. The syllabus is actually about the country that you're in.

What about history teaching in universities? For a long time, Britain lagged behind Germany and France in this regard. Why
was that?

It has to do partly with how the purpose of university education in England, up until the Second World War, certainly at Oxbridge and to some degree in London and at the red-brick universities, was to train and qualify people to serve Church and state.

It was meant to train people to govern an empire, to run the Church of England, to be lawyers, rather than to push forward research in disciplines for its own sake. The aim was to provide a liberal education, so the notion that academics ought to do research is a relatively recent invention.

It's striking how unprescriptive the board of education was about the history syllabus in the first half of the 20th century.
There was this very strong view that it wasn't the job of the board to tell people what to teach. It was thought that that's what continental despotisms did. We didn't do patriotism or propaganda. It was left up to the teachers of the local authorities to decide.

Did that change with the introduction of the National Curriculum?
What's interesting about the National Curriculum is that it offers a lot of freedom. And quite a lot of the choices offered are similar to what was outlined in the 1920sand 1930s.

One of the regrettable things about the current discussion is the belief in certain quarters that the National Curriculum is the problem. I don't think that's true. The National Curriculum is well worked out in terms of providing a coherent account of history in this country. But it also tries
to ensure that this is balanced with other histories of other countries.

The bigger problem, as I say in the book, is that it stops at 14, when it should really go on until 16.

You point out how rare it is for an education secretary or president of the board of education to stay in the post for very long.
The average time in office is two years. It's hard to believe that governments take education seriously if they're always switching people around. It'll be interesting to see how long Michael Gove stays.

Gove has taken a close interest in how history is taught in schools. What do you make of him?
He's clearly interested in history as a major aspect of education. It's been claimed that he has enlisted me as an adviser. I certainly hope that he thinks this book offers a lot of useful advice.

I am hopeful that what this book will persuade him of is that the National Curriculum in history is not the major problem. I am hoping it will persuade him that the major problem is that it needs to be made compulsory to the age of 16.

He is the person in charge of schools and education at the moment, so he is the person with whom we have to do business. If he wants any speeches about history in schools, I'd be very happy to write them for him.

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire
“The Right Kind of History: Teaching the Past in 20th-Century England" by David Cannadine, Jenny Keating and Nicola Sheldon is published by Palgrave Macmillan (£14.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture