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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?

Picture: Ralph Steadman
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The age of disorder: why technology is the greatest threat to humankind

Disruptive technologies might change the very nature of humanity – and no nation can fight on its own.

Though human beings are social animals, for millions of years they lived in small, intimate communities numbering no more than a few dozen people. Even today, as the evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar has shown, most human beings find it impossible properly to know more than 150 individuals, irrespective of how many Face­book “friends” they boast. Human beings easily develop loyalty to small, intimate groups such as a tribe, an infantry company or a family business, but it is hardly natural for them to be loyal to millions of strangers. Such mass loyalties have appeared only in the past few thousand years as a means of solving practical problems that no single tribe could solve by itself. Ancient Egypt was created to help human beings gain control of the River Nile, and ancient China coalesced to help the people restrain the turbulent Yellow River.

Nations solved some problems and created new ones. In particular, big nations led to big wars. Yet people were willing to pay the price in blood, because nations provided them with unprecedented levels of security and prosperity. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the nationalist deal still looked very attractive. Nationalism was leading to horrendous conflicts on an unprecedented scale, but modern nation states also built systems of health care, education and welfare. National health services made Passchendaele and Verdun seem worthwhile.

Yet the invention of nuclear weapons sharply tilted the balance of the deal. After Hiroshima, people no longer feared that nationalism would lead to mere war: they began to fear it would lead to nuclear war. Total annihilation has a way of ­sharpening people’s minds, and thanks in no small measure to the atomic bomb, the impossible happened and the nationalist genie was squeezed at least halfway back into its bottle. Just as the ancient villagers of the Yellow River Basin redirected some of their loyalty from local clans to a much bigger nation that restrained the dangerous river, so in the nuclear age a global community gradually developed over and above the various nations because only such a community could restrain the nuclear demon.

In the 1964 US presidential campaign, Lyndon B Johnson aired the “Daisy” advertisement, one of the most successful pieces of propaganda in the annals of television. The advert opens with a little girl picking and counting the petals of a daisy, but when she reaches ten, a metallic male voice takes over, counting back from ten to zero as in a missile launch countdown. Upon it reaching zero, the bright flash of a nuclear explosion fills the screen, and Candidate Johnson addresses the American public: “These are the stakes – to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other. Or we must die.” We often associate the slogan “Make love, not war” with the late-1960s counterculture, but already in 1964 it was accepted wisdom, even among hard-nosed politicians such as Johnson.

During the Cold War, nationalism took a back seat to a more global approach to international politics, and when the Cold War ended, globalisation seemed to be the irresistible wave of the future. It was expected that humankind would leave nationalistic politics behind, as a relic of more primitive times that might appeal at most to the ill-informed inhabitants of a few under­developed countries. Events in 2016 proved, however, that nationalism still has a powerful hold even on the citizens of Europe and the United States, not to mention Russia, India and China. Alienated by the impersonal forces of global capitalism, and fearing for the fate of national systems of health, education and welfare, people all over the world seek reassurance and meaning in the bosom of the nation.

Yet the question raised by Johnson in the Daisy advertisement is even more pertinent today than it was in 1964. Will we make a world in which all human beings can live together, or will we all go into the dark? Can Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and their like save the world by appealing to our national sentiments, or is the current nationalist spate a form of escapism from the intractable global problems we face?

***

Let’s start with nuclear war. When the Daisy advert aired, two years after the Cuban missile crisis, nuclear annihilation was a palpable threat. Pundits and laypeople alike feared that humankind did not have the wisdom to avert destruction, and that it was only a matter of time before the Cold War turned scorching hot. In fact, humankind successfully rose to the nuclear challenge. Americans, Soviets, Europeans and Chinese changed the way geopolitics had been conducted for millennia, so that the Cold War ended with little bloodshed, and a new internationalist world order fostered an era of unprecedented peace. Not only was nuclear war averted, but war of all kinds declined. Since 1945, surprisingly few borders have been redrawn through naked aggression, and most countries have ceased to use war as a standard political tool. In 2016, despite wars in Syria, Ukraine and other hot spots, fewer people died from human violence than from obesity, car accidents or suicide. This may well have been the greatest political and moral achievement of our times.

Unfortunately, we are so used to this achievement that we take it for granted. This is partly why people allow themselves to play with fire, and that includes not only the latest Russian adventures in eastern Europe and the Middle East, but also the choices made by European and American voters.

The Brexit debate in Britain revolved mainly around questions of economics and immigration, while the EU’s vital contribution to European and global peace has largely been ignored. After centuries of terrible bloodshed, the French, Germans, Italians and Britons have finally built a mechanism that ensures continental harmony – only to have the British public throw a wrench into the miracle machine. Meanwhile, Donald Trump mixes calls for US isolationism with plans to strengthen the country’s nuclear arsenal and reignite a nuclear arms race, thereby threatening to undo the hard-won gains of the past decades and bring us back to the brink of nuclear annihilation.

It was extremely difficult to construct the internationalist regime that prevented nuclear war and safeguarded global peace. No doubt we need to adapt this regime to changing conditions in the world: for example, by relying less on the United States and giving a greater role to non-Western powers such as China and India. But abandoning this regime altogether and reverting to nationalist power politics would be an ­irresponsible gamble.

True, in the past, countries played the ­nationalist politics game without destroying human civilisation. But that was in the pre-Hiroshima era. Since then, nuclear weapons have raised the stakes and changed the fundamental nature of war and politics. No matter whom American voters elect to the presidency, the atom bomb is still there and E still equals MC². As long as human beings know how to enrich uranium and plutonium, their survival will depend on privileging the prevention of nuclear war over the interests of any particular nation. Zealous nationalists should ask themselves whether their nation by itself, without a robust system of international co-operation, can protect the world – or even itself – from nuclear destruction.

On top of nuclear war, in the coming decades humankind will face a new threat to its existence that hardly registered on the political radar in 1964: climate change. If we continue with our present course it is likely that global warming, ocean acidification and ecological degradation will result in unprecedented economic, political and social problems, and might well destroy the foundations of human prosperity. What is the nationalist answer to climate change? How can any nation, however powerful, stop global warming on its own? Will the US build a wall against rising oceans?

When it comes to climate, countries are not sovereign, but are at the mercy of actions taken by governments on the other side of the planet. As long as 200 governments pursue 200 different ecological strategies, shaped by their unique needs and interests, none is likely to succeed. With present-day technology, any serious measures to stop global warming are likely to slow down economic growth. Such a policy carries an unbearable political price if it is undertaken by a single country while others continue with business as usual. Any US administration that deliberately slowed down economic growth for environmental reasons would be bound to lose the next election; a Chinese administration that does so courts revolution tomorrow morning. In a nationalist and xenophobic world no government will sacrifice itself for the greater good of humanity, as Trump’s actions show.

***

Indeed, nationalism is even more dangerous in the context of climate change than that of nuclear war. An atomic bomb is such an obvious and immediate threat that even the most ardent nationalist cannot ignore it. Global warming, by contrast, is a much more vague and protracted menace. Hence, whenever environmental considerations demand some painful sacrifice, nationalists will be tempted to put the national interest first, reassuring themselves that we can worry about the environment later, or just leave it to people elsewhere. Alternatively, as in the case of Trump, they may simply deny the problem. It isn’t a coincidence that scepticism about climate change is usually the preserve of nationalist politicians. They have no answer to the problem, and so they prefer to believe it does not exist.

The same dynamics are likely to spoil any nationalist antidote to the third large threat to human existence in the 21st century: technological disruption. New technologies, particularly in the fields of bioengineering and artificial intelligence, will soon give humankind unprecedented, godlike powers. Whereas previously human beings learned to produce food, weapons and vehicles, in the coming decades our main products will probably be bodies, brains and minds. However, it is extremely difficult to foresee the potential impact of such technologies. They open the door to an entire supermarket of doomsday scenarios.

If and when artificial intelligence (AI) surpasses human intelligence, it may be given control of weapon systems and crucial decisions, with potentially calamitous consequences. In addition, as AI outperforms human beings in ever more tasks, it might push billions of us out of the job market, creating a new “useless class” of people, devoid of both economic value and political power. Meanwhile, given enough biometric data and enough computing power, external algorithms could know us better than we know ourselves, and then governments and corporations could predict our decisions, mani­pulate our emotions and gain absolute control over our lives.

On the bioengineering front, breakthroughs in genetics, nanotechnology and direct brain/computer interfaces could unleash deadly new epidemics or disturb our internal mental balance. In past centuries we have gained control of the world outside us and reshaped the planet, but because we didn’t understand the complexity of the global ecology, the changes we made inadvertently disrupted the entire ecological system. In the coming century we will gain control of the world inside us and reshape our bodies and brains, but because we don’t understand the complexity of our own minds, the changes we will make might disrupt our mental system. In addition, bioengineering might for the first time in history translate economic inequality into biological inequality, creating an upper caste of enhanced superhumans, and relegating the poor to the dustbin of evolution.

What is the nationalist answer to these menaces? As in the case of global warming, so, too, with technological disruption: the nation state is the wrong framework to address the threat. Given that research and development are not the monopoly of any one country, even a superpower such as the US or China cannot restrict them by itself. If the US government forbids the genetic engineering of human embryos, it won’t prevent North Korean scientists from doing such work. And if the resulting developments confer on North Korea some crucial economic or military advantage, the US will be tempted to break its own ban. Particularly in a xenophobic, dog-eat-dog world, if even a single country chooses to pursue a high-risk, high-gain technological path, other countries will be forced to do the same, because nobody can afford to remain behind. In order to avoid such a race to the bottom, humankind will probably need some kind of global identity and loyalty.

Whereas nuclear war and climate change threaten only the physical survival of humankind, disruptive technologies might change the very nature of humanity, and are therefore entangled with human beings’ deepest ethical and religious beliefs. Although everyone agrees that we should avoid nuclear war and ecological meltdown, people have widely differing opinions about using bioengineering and AI to upgrade human beings and to create new life forms. If we fail to cobble together globally accepted ethical guidelines, it will be open season for Dr Frankenstein.

When it comes to formulating such ethical guidelines, nationalism suffers above all from a failure of the imagination. Nationalists think in terms of territorial conflicts lasting centuries, whereas the technological revolutions of the 21st century should be understood in cosmic terms. Ever since its appearance on Earth, four billion years ago, life has been governed by the laws of natural selection. During those aeons, whether you were a virus or a dinosaur, you evolved according to the principles of natural selection. No matter what strange shapes life took, it remained confined to the organic realm. Whether a cactus or a whale, you were made of organic compounds. Now science might replace natural selection with intelligent design, and might even start creating non-organic life forms. After four billion years of organic life shaped by natural selection, science is ushering in an era of inorganic life shaped by intelligent design. What has Israeli, Russian or French nationalism got to say about this? In order to make wise choices about the future of life we need to go way beyond the nationalist viewpoint and look at things from a much wider perspective.

***

The nationalist wave sweeping across the world cannot turn the clock back to 1939 or 1914. Technology has changed everything by creating a set of global threats to human existence that no nation can fight on its own. A common enemy is the best catalyst for forging a common identity, and humankind now has three such enemies – nuclear war, climate change and disruptive technology. If, despite these threats, we choose to privilege our particular national loyalties above everything else, the results may be far worse than in 1914 and 1939.

A much better path is the one outlined in the EU’s constitution, which states that “while remaining proud of their own national identities and history, the peoples of Europe are determined to transcend their former divisions and, united ever more closely, to forge a common destiny”. There is still plenty of room in the world for the kind of patriotism that celebrates the uniqueness of my nation and stresses my special obligations towards it. Yet, if we want to survive and flourish, humankind has little choice but to complement such local loyalties with substantial obligations towards a global community.

In previous centuries national identities were forged because human beings faced problems and discovered opportunities that went far beyond the scope of ­local tribes, and which only countrywide co-operation could hope to handle. In the 21st century, nations find themselves in the same situation as the old tribes.

We need a new global identity, because national institutions are incapable of managing a set of unprecedented global challenges. We now have a global ecology, a global economy and a global science – but we are still stuck with only national politics. This mismatch prevents the political system from countering our main problems effectively.

To have effective politics, we must either de-globalise the ecology, the economy and the march of science, or we must globalise our politics. As it is impossible to ­de-globalise the ecology and the march of science, and as the cost of de-globalising the economy will probably be ruinous, the only solution is to globalise politics.

Yuval Noah Harari lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His latest book is “Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow” (Vintage)

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