March 3, 2013 by lambethteachers
‘A staggering level of ignorance’ was how alleged historian David Starkey described the knowledge of our history students, but it was a label much more applicable to himself. Debating David Evans on The Sunday Politics, this was a typically robust performance. If the viewers’ jaws didn’t quite drop as far as during his notorious Newsnight tirade about white rioters ‘turning black’, the same self-image of the brave scourge of multiculturalism was ever-present.
So he single-mindedly returned again and again to Mary Seacole (perhaps initially unaware of her belated curriculum inclusion) as an example of New Labour’s devious political project to brainwash our kids into appreciating diversity. Diane Abbott and Jesse Jackson were singled out as the instigators of this dastardly left-wing plot. Apparently if you turn off the TV picture while they’re talking you can’t, as Starkey approvingly said of David Lammy, imagine that they’re white. On the other hand you would need to entirely disengage your critical faculties to consider Starkey as anything other than an inveterate bigot.
Some of Gove’s more intelligent defenders have rejected the view that the proposed new history curriculum would restore rote-learning, claiming implausibly that in a regime of content overload, Ofsted bullying and performance related pay that teachers would retain pedagogical autonomy. Starkey was having none of it: rote learning was, like the focus of most of his history – king. He was outraged that a small selection of students couldn’t answer pub quiz questions on topics they might not have covered yet. He didn’t countenance the abundant evidence that as long as history has been taught – even in those supposedly halycon days of talk, chalk and cane – the older generation have bemoaned the gaps in children’s substantive knowledge.
The answer, for Starkey, is ‘facts, facts, facts’ and perhaps, when they’re old enough to enter his seminar room, then they can begin to consider the past as contructed and contested. Though presumably only if they agree with him. Richard Evans cogently explained that this not how historians work – I will, for example, never be able to expunge from my mind Starkey’s admission in his biography of Queen Elizabeth that his interest in the topic emerged from the crush he had on her. This didactic method is also a sure way to minimise any likelihood that students might be engaged with history as a discipline, or learn any skills of note to help them navigate the world as a citizen (rather than note-taking skills which help them to navigate an artificial three-hour exam).
Starkey’s resort to the old ‘you-shouldn’t-teach-empathy-for-the-Holocausr’ standby was a travesty of how this topic is actually taught in the vast majority of classrooms, and a rather brave tack given that Richard Evans is one of the foremost authorities on the subject. As he began to explain before Andrew Neil and Starkey managed to curtail further meaningful debate, a simplistic ‘moral’ framing of a Holocaust enquiry is much more likely to emerge from Gove’s proposed curriculum.
One might have expected a bit more humility from Starkey about the workings of the history classroom after his Jamie Oliver debacle, but it seems he is still willing to make sweeping assumptions. So apparently you can either teach the Holocaust as a bald body of facts or by role-playing concentration camp guards. Adorno once wrote that there is ‘no poetry after the holocaust’. If Starkey is to be believed, the same is true of critical thinking and nuanced teaching. But then Starkey’s trust for teachers is as low as it is for students’ capacity to think for themselves.
I doubt Starkey’s performance will have convinced a swathe of history teachers to back Gove, but I suspect it was intended more to act as a dog-whistle for the UKIP tendency. If it is not to succeed we need to drown it out – with the voices of those who understand the lessons of history.
Tuesday 5th March, 6.15pm: History Curriculum Campaign planning meeting. Lucas Arms, 245a Grays Inn Road, Kings Cross, London. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info on the campaign.