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1066 and all that

Michael Gove argues that schools should teach children about kings, queens and wars. He's offering a

"Fewer and fewer students want to study the past," complained the Tory MP and historian Chris Skidmore recently, adding: "[G]iven the way it is currently presented in schools, who can blame them?" In 2011, in 159 schools no pupils at all were entered for GCSE history. "We are facing a situation," he warns, "where history is at risk of dying out in schools and regions in the country." His remedy is to reorient the GCSE towards "our national history, rather than focusing on Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia or the history of medicine. We should introduce a narrative-based exam that covers every age in British history across a broad chronological span", instead of focusing on isolated "bite-sized" chunks of history. "Local history," he adds, would bring it all to life and "can easily be woven into the school curriculum".

Skidmore joins a swelling chorus of voices clamouring for a restoration of a British history narrative at the core of the curriculum as a means of halting the subject's decline in schools. It has been led by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. The current National Curriculum, he says, neglects our national history: "Most parents would rather their children had a traditional education, with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England." David Cameron has lamented the "tragedy that we have swept away the teaching of narrative history and replaced it with a bite-sized, disjointed approach to learning about historical events . . . [in a] shift away from learning actual knowledge, such as facts and dates."

Some historians take the same view. "The syllabus," thunders Dominic Sandbrook, "has been a shambles for years. Fragmented and fractured, obsessed with the Nazis and apparently indifferent to the pleasures of narrative, it leaves students struggling for a sense of the contours of our national story." The Labour MP and historian Tristram Hunt has added his voice to those demanding a replacement of the current National Curriculum with a British-focused national narrative, showing there is a cross-party consensus behind these criticisms.

But is history in our schools really in a state of terminal crisis? As David Cannadine has shown in his new book The Right Kind of History: Teaching the Past in Twentieth-Century England, such complaints are not new. They were made by Margaret Thatcher's government in the 1980s and by others long before, all of whom wanted history-teaching to be a vehicle for the creation of a unified sense of national identity. Indeed, at the beginning of the 20th century, history was barely taught in schools at all. When GCSEs were introduced in the 1980s, history, unlike many other subjects, was not made compulsory; still, about a third of all GCSE candidates voluntarily studied it as one of their exam subjects. Over the following years the spread of thematic and social history approaches pioneered by the Schools History Project, including the history of medicine, far from plunging the subject into crisis, actually led to an increase in its popularity and GCSE history entries reached 40 per cent by 1995.

The introduction of league tables in the 1990s, however, focused schools' attention on maths, English and science at primary level. The result was a rapid and drastic fall in history teaching, so that nowadays only 4 per cent of class time in primary schools is devoted to the subject. League tables based on GCSE and A-level results have led secondary schools to focus on subjects in which better GCSE results can be achieved, and pupils often prefer to take a GCSE in a subject that's compulsory until the age of 16 than add to their workload by taking one that's not - such as history. All this has led to a 10 per cent drop in history GCSE entries since 1995, putting it back to around 30 per cent. However, this is roughly where it was when the GCSE was introduced; it's not, as Skidmore implies, a decline from some past golden age when all 14-to-16-year-olds took the subject.

Blaming the curriculum is wrong. In 2007 the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority reported that a survey of 1,700 children, two-thirds of whom gave up the subject at 14, found that half of them liked and enjoyed the subject. And it's important not to exaggerate the decline either. A recent Ofsted report on the teaching of history in 166 primary and secondary schools noted that between 2007 and 2010 "there were more examination entries for history than for any other optional subject at GCSE level apart from design and technology".

The number of students taking GCSE history remained stable from 2000 to 2010. Moreover, Ofsted reported that "numbers taking the subject at A-level have risen steadily over the past ten years", making history one of the "top five subject choices at A-level". The report found the subject was well taught at a majority of schools at all levels, and that pupils enjoyed their lessons, found history fun, and praised it for making them think. Far from being in a state of terminal decay, then, history in schools is actually a success story.

Still, nobody seriously interested in the subject would want to disagree with the proposition that more schoolchildren should study it. Is the way forward to focus it exclusively on British history? In fact, the National Curriculum for children up to the age of 14 already has a chronological account of British history from 1066 to the present as its core, surrounding it with forays into European and extra-European history to introduce pupils to other countries and cultures. And local history is also a key part of the curriculum, as Skidmore would discover if he actually bothered to read it. So the Ofsted report, surveying the content of teaching across the country, concludes firmly that "the view that too little British history is taught in secondary schools in England is a myth". Complaints about the "Nazification" of the curriculum are mere rhetoric and nothing more. One can smell more than a whiff of Tory Euro-scepticism in the complaint that pupils learn more about Russia and Germany than they do about England.

Would a greater emphasis on kings and queens help? Dominic Sandbrook notes that, "for all the efforts of academic historians, popular history is still dominated by vivid characters and bloody battles, often shot through with a deep sense of national pride". But many of the most popular history books don't deal with British history at all, even if they do focus on vivid characters and bloody battles: Antony Beevor's Stalingrad, for instance; or Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's Mao: The Untold Story; or, in a rather different way, Edmund de Waal's bestselling part-history, part-memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes. And many popular history books deal with social and cultural history, including, ironically, Sandbrook's own marvellous, best-selling trilogy of books on post-war Britain; some of the greatest bestsellers of recent years, such as Dava Sobel's Longitude, are on subjects about as far away as one could imagine from kings and battles.

How about teaching narrative rather than analysis, then? It is wrong, David Starkey has asserted, that history in the schools has modelled itself on university research. What we need, he declares, is to give children "a sense of change and development over time . . . The skills-based teaching of history is a catastrophe." But what sells in the bookshops or what succeeds on TV is not necessarily what should be taught in schools. Teaching is a profession with its own skills and techniques, different from those needed to present a television programme (as Starkey's performance on the reality TV show Jamie's Dream School dramatically indicated). Physics, biology and every other subject in schools is taught along lines that reflect research in the universities. One wouldn't expect physics teachers to ignore Stephen Hawking's ideas about black holes, or biology teachers to keep quiet about the discovery of DNA. So what makes history so different? Chemistry devotes a large amount of time to transmitting skills to students; why shouldn't history?

The narrative that the critics want shoved down pupils' throats in schools - as they sit in rows silently learning lists of kings and queens - is essentially what's been called the "Whig theory of history"; that is, telling a story of British history over a long period of time, stressing the development of parliamentary democracy in a narrative that culminates in a present viewed in self-congratulatory terms.

This theory was exploded by professional historians more than half a century ago, under the influence of the classic tract The Whig Interpretation of History by the conservative historian Herbert Butterfield. Yet it still has strong support in the media. The Daily Telegraph and the right-wing think tank Civitas even campaigned to get H E Marshall's patriotic textbook Our Island Story put on the National Curriculum. Dating from the Edwardian era, this book, with its stories of how the British brought freedom and justice to the Maoris of New Zealand and many other lucky peoples across the world, has rightly been described as "imperialist propaganda masquerading as history". In what other academic subject would people seriously advocate a return to a state of knowledge as it was a hundred years ago?

Perhaps instead of this outdated volume they might therefore use Simon Jenkins's new A Short History of England. But its message is in the end not very different. Interviewed in the Guardian, its author intoned with breathtaking complacency his view that "England really is a most successful country" and claimed that English history was separate from that of the other European powers. "The British talent," if we are to believe Jenkins, "had always been to keep away from wars overseas. We had kept out of Europe all the time."

Jenkins talks as if there had never been a Norman conquest, an Angevin regime, a hundred years war, a Dutch invasion (in 1688), joint rule of a large chunk of Germany (Hanover) from 1714 to 1837, or a series of wars with France, ranging across the world from India to the Americas, from the age of Louis XIV to that of Napoleon; as if there had never been any immigration or any cultural exchange with the Continent; as if our history had not been part of Europe's through two world wars and the ensuing decades of peace. The thought of such an ignorant and insular approach to English history finding its way into the hands of children is frightening; but on the other hand, its errors of fact and perspective are so egregious that it might provide a good starting point from which they can sharpen their critical faculties.

It's all very well demanding that the curriculum should be filled with facts, but what facts you choose depends on what vision you have of British national identity. The concept of "British history" itself is contentious and politically debatable, which perhaps is why some of the National Curriculum's critics advocate a narrative history of England instead; though in the case of Jenkins the justification for this, that "England is an island", is a geographical howler that even six-year-olds should be able to spot. Time and again, the advocates of a national narrative confuse English history with British history, in a way that would not go down well in Cardiff or Edinburgh.

History at every level, not just in the universities, is endlessly contentious and argumentative. How can this provide a basis for a unified national consciousness? Rote learning suppresses critical thought; narrative isn't something you can teach unless you subject it to critical analysis and for that you need the skills to interrogate it. For analysis, especially in depth, you need to study selected topics, even if it has to be within a broader chronological context. Critics who complain of the breaking up of the seamless web of chronology have no concept of what history teaching and learning actually involve.

Forcing students to study a narrowly focused curriculum based on British kings and queens would soon lead to students in their thousands being put off history as a subject. There would be a collapse of take-up at GCSE and A-level. Our culture and our national identity would be impoverished. A quack remedy for a misdiagnosed complaint, it would only make things worse. The real threat to history teaching in our schools doesn't come from the curriculum, it comes from somewhere else, not mentioned by Skidmore at all: it comes from the academies, Michael Gove's flagship secondary schools, which are free from local authority control and don't have to follow the National Curriculum. In 2011, just 20 per cent of academy students taking GCSEs included history among their subjects. As academies - which already make up 10 per cent of secondary schools - spread further, with government encouragement, the teaching of history really will be in crisis.

Richard J Evans is Regius Professor of History and president of Wolfson College, Cambridge. He is the author of "The Third Reich at War" (Penguin, £12.99)

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

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First they came for Pepe: How “ironic” Nazism is taking over the internet

Over the last year, various internet subcultures have embraced Nazi iconography while simultaneously claiming to hold no Nazi beliefs. Why?

There is a scene in Roman Polanski’s critically-acclaimed World War Two film The Pianist in which the Jewish protagonist, played by Adrien Brody, puts on a German soldier’s coat to keep warm.

“Don’t shoot!” he tells the Polish troops who have come to liberate Warsaw. “I’m Polish!” A soldier, realising his mistake, lowers his gun. With disdain on his face, he asks: “Why the fucking coat?”

The chilly hero might not have been acting unreasonably, but neither was the soldier. It's safe to say that in normal circumstances, "Nazi coat" can be used as shorthand for "Nazi person". I found myself asking a similar question last month when I interviewed a “Nazi furry”. The furry (ie. person who dresses as an animal, often for sexual reasons) likes to wear a red armband reminiscent of those worn by the Nazi party. “It’s just a piece of cloth,” he said at the time, insisting he held no far-right views. Then why not choose another piece of cloth? I wondered to myself.

This furry is just one of hundreds of people online who flaunt the iconography of National Socialism whilst denying they hold any Nazi views. If that doesn’t make sense, it shouldn’t. “Ironic” Nazism, “satirical” Nazism, and “just joking” Nazism have taken over the internet. Who is behind it, what are they doing, and how did it begin?

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Unfortunately, it is probably Hillary Clinton’s fault. In September 2016, the presidential hopeful’s website declared popular internet meme Pepe the Frog to be a white supremacist symbol. If we ignore that this has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy (racists embraced Pepe after the Anti-Defamation League chimed in and officially declared the meme a hate symbol), this was a frankly ridiculous assertion.

“We've won folks... My God ...We've won,” read a post on r/TheDonald – the Reddit hub for Donald Trump supporters – after the news. They didn't hold back with their disdain. “This makes her look absolutely retarded to anyone young enough to be on the internet,” read the top comment. Why? White supremacists were undoubtedly already using the meme – many on the notoriously politically incorrect 4Chan board /pol/ had emblazoned the frog with swastikas. So why wasn’t it, in turn, a white supremacist symbol?

The answer to this is irony. Layers and layers of it slathered with thick, glutinous nonsense that form a Bruce Bogtrotter’s cake that is impossible to digest. You and I are what 4Chan would pejoratively call “normies”, i.e. normal people. We can’t possibly hope to understand the difference between someone on 4Chan who holds sincere Nazi beliefs and someone who is shouting “Death to all Jews” for the keks (see glossary), like a toddler who has just learnt the word “poo”.

This doesn’t normally matter – we can just ignore them – but Clinton’s post gave them the legitimacy and media attention that they craved.

It also, I would argue, set off a new internet trend. Angry at liberals labelling everything (most notably, the alt-right) “Nazis”, fringe internet communities decided to fight back. The logic – if it can be called that – went like this:

“Let’s dress like Nazis and act like Nazis so that liberals call us Nazis when we’re not! That will show just how stupid these liberals are!”

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“The press, the media, does not deserve to have a consistent picture of reality presented to them.”

These are the words of Qu Qu, a man in his late twenties who considers himself the leader of the “alt furry” movement, who is speaking to me over Twitter. Alt furries are furries who have embraced far-right messages and Nazi iconography on the social network. Some wear armbands, others write erotic Nazi literature, some tweet anti-Semitic jokes. When I spoke to some last month, I was shocked when only one of them actually admitted to holding Nazi views. Many claimed they were being “ironic” or fighting back at what they consider to be left-wing intolerance.

“If the press becomes obsessed with a moral panic, such as the one about the resurgence of National Socialism, it is the duty of every subculture to feed that paranoia until its absurdity becomes plain for all to see.”

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Earlier this week, the king of this logic died.

PewDiePie – the most subscribed content creator on YouTube – was dropped by Disney after the Wall Street Journal exposed an array of anti-Semitic comments in his videos. In the past, he has spoken out against the media for misrepresenting his “jokes”, but this time he wrote a blog post in which he admitted: “I understand that these jokes were ultimately offensive.” What changed?

What changed is that PewDiePie was confronted with a reality that anti-hate campaigners have long since known to be true. After his anti-Semitic videos, PewDiePie was embraced by the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, which is now calling itself “The world’s #1 PewDiePie Fansite.” PewDiePie has learnt a truth that many of the “just joking” brigade frequently try to deny – that satire, irony, and jokes can validate and legitimise hate speech in a way that helps it to spread.

“Pushing out anti-Semitic tropes has consequences in the real world,” says a spokesperson for anti-racism organisation Hope Not Hate. “PewDiePie may or may not believe this stuff himself, but he does need to understand that he has an effect on the world, and that racists and haters can sometimes act on the words and memes that are shared so readily on social channels, and – with soaring hate crime rates – already have.”

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Then they came for Trash Dove.

The head-banging purple pigeon is a Facebook sticker (a picture users can post in the social network’s comment sections) that went viral this week. In response, 4Chan started “Operation Nazi Bird”, a satirical campaign to turn the meme into a Nazi symbol. The aim was to trick the left.

This started to work when a self-described philosopher known as Quincy Frey wrote a satirical Medium post (which has since been removed after a copyright claim) declaring Trash Dove to be an “alt-right” symbol. When people began to fall for this, 4Chan won. Yet so too – as Hope Not Hate argue – did actual white supremacists.

“What started as irony will now actually spread and this will become a ‘Nazi hate’ symbol whether we like it or not,” Quincy Frey tells me. “The alt-righters from 4Chan work in a funny way; it always starts ironic but they seem to take irony to the next level and then these idiots become brainwashed… eventually their sickness will spread.”

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Which leaves us with a question that regrettably summarises today’s state of affairs: are ironic Nazis as dangerous as real Nazis?

Simon Johnson, the chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, seems to think so. “It is difficult to understand how people can use Holocaust language, imagery or comments and think that it is a joke,” he says. “The French comedian Dieudonne uses the Quenelle gesture and other supposedly humorous Holocaust imagery, as well as dressing cast members in concentration camp uniforms, as part of his act." The Quenelle gesture was an originally jokey gesture which has grown to be considered anti-Semitic after individuals posed in front of Jewish institutions holding the stance. In December 2013, French President François Hollande reacted to the gesture, saying: "We will fight against the sarcasm of those who purport to be humorists but are actually professional anti-Semites.”

Johnson agrees it is important to tackle this alleged comedy. "For many this demeans the Holocaust and would be considered anti-Semitism. Allowing these acts to continue perpetuates myths and often leads prejudice against the Jewish community.”

It is also important to note that many who claim to be “satirical” Nazis are simply hiding behind a thin veil of plausible deniability. The word “irony” – however incorrectly it’s being used – allows them to spread Nazi messages and iconography whilst denying culpability. It also leaves many on the left unsure where they stand. What’s more important: combatting hate speech or protecting free speech?

Kassie is a 31-year-old graduate student who reached out to me after being mocked for taking Trash Dove seriously as an alt-right symbol - proving that online trends can have real-world consequences. “My friend is liberal but thinks I'm overreacting and don't understand satire,” she tells me. “But I don't get why I have to call Nazi jokes satire.

“The most frustrating part is that my concern is immediately written off as stupid because I don't belong to the community. If we get past that part, then I'm overreacting or dumb because I don't get that it's ironic or I don't understand that it's a joke. But I get that on some level people are saying that it's a joke, and some are ‘just joking’ and I still think that a joke can be racist and misogynist and alt-right or whatever.

“I'm just left with feeling like I've fallen down a hole of ironic devils advocates who use that as an excuse to say ‘funny’ racist and misogynistic things.”

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When Prince Harry donned a Nazi uniform for a fancy dress party in 2005, no one thought he was actually a fan of Hitler. If ironic Nazis had emerged twelve years ago, they might have been given the same benefit of the doubt by being considered poor taste but not ultimately racist. Yet context is key. In an era when the President of the United States wants a registry of Muslim citizens, and fascism appears to be on the rise across Europe, no one who is “just joking” – not furries, YouTubers, or 4Channers – can be annoyed if the media labels them Nazis.

I do agree that fundamentally it is important to combat the left’s tendency to label everything right-wing “Nazi” or “racist”. Internet subcultures are not wrong to attempt to challenge this and other examples of left-wing extremes. Yet if this is what they really want, then one - very pressing - question remains. Why the fucking coat? 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.