Gove's proposals would see pupils studying primarily British history. Image: Alex Leme "Globe" 2009
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Michael Gove’s history curriculum is a pub quiz not an education

The rote sets in.

Michael Gove’s new draft national curriculum for history, launched on 7 February, has been greeted with dismay by history teachers at every level, from primary schools to universities, and from every part of the political spectrum.

What has annoyed them most is Gove’s decision to ignore the consultation process and do it all himself. He initially asked the historian Niall Ferguson to come up with ideas for a new curriculum but Ferguson’s response, based on a positive presentation of Europe’s – and especially Britain’s – global ascendancy since the early modern period, did not appeal to Gove, because it advocated history with a global sweep instead of history focused on supposedly key personalities and events within the British past.

Sidelining Ferguson, Gove then asked another expatriate British television historian, Simon Schama, to take a lead. A process of consultation began. A large meeting was held with interested parties including the Better History Forum of conservative teachers led by a former teacher, Seán Lang. Clearly those selected to advise the secretary of state, such as Steven Mastin, a state school history teacher, were chosen partly for political reasons (Mastin was an unsuccessful Conservative candidate at the 2010 general election). With their participation, a draft national history curriculum was hammered out in January and prepared for consultation.

What was actually announced in early February came as a shock to everyone. Those who had taken part in the preparation process did not recognise it. The history profession, including the history sections of the British Academy, the Historical Association, the Royal Historical Society and History UK, complained that the “details of the [new] curriculum have been drafted inside the Department for Education without any systematic consultation or public discussion with historians, teachers or the wider public”.

Even conservative historians were dismayed. A group of 15 academic historians close to the Conservative Party gave their support in a letter to the Times only “in principle” and hoped that the proposals “will no doubt be adapted as a result of full consultation”. Ferguson found the draft curriculum “too prescriptive” and complained that his advice to Gove on this point had been ignored. Lang complained on behalf of the Better History Forum: “Our proposal was ignored; Mr Gove has apparently shut his ears to anyone’s advice but his own.” Mastin said the proposed new curriculum bore “no resemblance” to drafts he had worked on as late as January of this year. “Between January and the publication of this document – which no one involved in the consultation had seen – someone has typed it up and I have no idea who that is,” he remarked.

The answer is inescapable: it was Gove. Just as Margaret Thatcher declared herself shocked and appalled when she saw her first national history curriculum, drawn up largely by education professionals, Gove must have reacted with dismay when he saw the final draft of his history curriculum. Neither document delivered what the politicians wanted, namely the learning of names, dates and facts strung together to form a celebratory, patriotic national narrative. Unlike Thatcher, however, who in the end reluctantly respected the professionals’ expertise, he tore it up and wrote his own.

What does the proposed new curriculum suggest? It begins well enough by reminding us: “A high-quality history education equips pupils to think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments and develop perspective and judgement.” Yet this introduction seems to have been left over from an earlier draft, for it is no more than a token gesture, almost completely forgotten in the rest of the text, which focuses on listing the facts that pupils will have to learn by rote.

The contradiction between aims and content is even more crass in the passage about the requirement that pupils “know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history”. Despite this laudable aim, they are given no opportunity whatsoever to do so in the rest of the curriculum, in which the emphasis is exclusively on British history. European and world history are included only where they are relevant to Britain.

At times, this verges on the comical. When pupils study the Enlightenment, for instance, they study “Francis Bacon, John Locke, Christopher Wren, Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, Adam Smith and the impact of European thinkers”, though not those thinkers themselves; clearly Voltaire, Montesquieu and Diderot are unimportant because they were French.

This is a curriculum that will produce a generation of young Britons with no knowledge of the history of any part of the world beyond the shores of the British Isles. “As far as I am aware,” Mastin has warned, “we will be the only jurisdiction in the western world that won’t teach world history.” The curriculum declares: “A knowledge of Britain’s past, and our place in the world, helps us understand the challenges of our own time.” Yet in today’s globalised world, it does no such thing.

How are history pupils going to be tested on their knowledge of, say, Thatcher’s election (oddly, the period that the curriculum specifies stops at the moment she comes to power and does not require pupils to know anything about her government), the Chartists or King Athelstan? The draft curriculum is no help at all here. Will they be given multiple-choice examinations? There are no clues; it doesn’t mention the skills whose varying level of deployment is the main basis for assessment. This is preparation for Mastermind or a pub quiz; it is not education.

The new curriculum tells pupils what to think. The Dutch invasion that overthrew King James II was, it declares, “the Glorious Revolution”, ignoring its violent anti-Catholicism and deadly effects in Scotland and Ireland, which were followed by the discrimination against Catholics in the UK that lasted another 140 years. Not glorious for everyone, then. It also tells us what the causes of the First World War were (“colonial rivalry, naval expansion and European alliances”); the causes of the Second World War, meanwhile, were “appeasement, the failure of the League of Nations and the rise of the dictators”.

Evidence gathered in the recent Ofsted report History for All suggests that one of the chief attractions of history for school students is the opportunity that it gives them to find out about historical personalities and issues for themselves and to make their own decisions. The new curriculum is sure to put them off the subject.

Gove has said he wants pupils to study British heroes. However, is “Clive of India” a hero to the many British children of Indian parentage or descent? Historical individuals, including objects of left-wing admiration such as the Levellers or the black nurse Mary Seacole, should be presented as subjects for historical inquiry, not as heroes or heroines to be admired mindlessly.

The new chronology that forms the basis of the proposed curriculum isn’t workable. In practice, it will produce even more superficial knowledge than pupils have at the moment. With only one hour a week devoted to history, taught by a non-specialist teacher, how are primary school pupils going to work their way through the dense factual material of Key Stages 1 and 2? There is simply too much material to teach; only bits and pieces can be selected.

And how are seven-year-olds going to understand topics such as “the heptarchy” or “feudalism”? What will 11-year-olds make of the Putney debates? After the age of 11, pupils will study only modern history. They will come to maturity with a knowledge of the Middle Ages stuck at the level of a nine-yearold. The teaching prescribed by the draft curriculum is not appropriate to the ages of the children being taught.

Given the time available, the chronology will end up being taught as discrete episodes. Narrative or, to use a better word, chronicle, the recital of one event after another, will not help children understand change over time; to do that, they need to compare and relate events with each other and with their contexts, not just to learn that the Vikings came after the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans after the Vikings. In practice, sequential teaching of this kind does not provide a context; it rips events out of their context, leaving them insusceptible to analysis.

All of the new developments over the past half-century – in economic, social, cultural and other kinds of history – that have made history so exciting as a discipline are pushed to the sidelines in favour of a political narrative that might have been lifted straight from a textbook written in the 1930s. There are labels and concepts in the new curriculum that haven’t been used by historians for years – “gunboat diplomacy” and “Clive of India”, to name only two.

Gove wants the teaching of history to give pupils a positive sense of national identity and pride. Yet history isn’t a form of instruction in citizenship. It’s an academic subject in its own right. If he really wants more rigour in education, Gove should tear up his amateurish new curriculum and start listening to the professionals.

Richard J Evans is Regius professor of history and president of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem