Hodder History Expert Blog

A new year: a new battle for history
By Dr Katharine Burn
06 Jan
In the final blog of 2013, Alex and Rachel Ford signed off their poetic summary of last year’s tumultuous curriculum battles with the promise that history teachers (exhausted as they then were) would be back to face 'next year head on!'  

How naïve I was to assume that teachers might be given until the start of the new term to gather their strength for any fresh onslaught. Indeed, the next skirmishes began even before the start of 2014, although the first debate, Radio 4’s Start the Week programme on 30th December, was conducted in highly civilised terms – so civilised that Andrew Marr suffered the ‘clammy sweat of cold panic’ as agreement appeared to be breaking out all round.  He need not have worried. Michael Gove’s essentially polite and carefully worded suggestion on Start the Week that the First World War has tended, for various reasons, to be viewed ‘through a particular prism’ became in the pages of the Daily Mail a far more emotive and ideologically charged attack on ‘Left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders’. Although Gove cited the influence of Blackadder, it was the Daily Mail reporter introducing his article, rather than the Secretary of Education himself, who made the point that Blackadder is ‘still shown in schools to help children learn about the war’. The implication, of course, although it is only an implication, is that history teachers are presenting Blackadder in their classrooms as an authoritative account of the past.

Of course, no properly trained and qualified history teacher would dream of doing such a thing. And yet the profession feels obliged once more to refute damaging allegations that seem to be driven by political motives. So rather than merely protesting that Blackadder is only one of a number of teaching tools – as Tony Robinson was quick to point out – it is perhaps important to declare emphatically that Blackadder is actually an ideal resource for helping students to achieve one of the aims of the 2014 curriculum that of ‘discern[ing] how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed’.  I know of few better ways of illustrating to young people the ways in which popular interpretations of the past change over time than by contrasting the Pathé news coverage of Haig’s state funeral in 1928 with Geoffrey Palmer’s portrayal of Haig scooping toy soldiers into his dustpan and throwing them over his shoulder. The contrast immediately provokes the question ‘Why the difference?’- and a particularly useful guide in helping students to answer that question can be found in the first chapter of Gary Sheffield’s (2001) revisionist argument ‘Forgotten Victory’ (one of the historians cited with approval by Gove).  While some of the reasons – those most readily accessible to all media-savvy young people – derive from the fact that Blackadder was created as a sit-com for entertainment purposes, others require and inspire those young people to engage both with subsequent historical events (including the disillusionment and pacifism of the twenties and thirties, and the horror of another global conflict) and with important questions of historical methodology (how typical are the perspectives of the published ‘war poets’ when seeking the views of those involved in the fighting? What kinds of sources – popular songs, censored letters, subsequent interviews or regimental archives – might give us better access to the views of the frontline infantrymen? How much emphasis should be given in reaching a judgment to the different phases of the war?)

Historical understanding of any significant event depends on hard work. It requires substantive knowledge – about many different periods, not merely the one in question – and critical thinking about the grounds on which any claims about that past are actually based. Teachers don’t stop with Blackadder. Indeed, I have seen their students go on to interrogate not only Gary Sheffield’s text, but also his footnotes! But by starting with it, those students not only come to appreciate how much the past still matters, but are sufficiently intrigued to ask the questions that will drive the hard work they then need to do to answer both questions – not merely ‘Why did they go to war?’ but ‘Why do we disagree so fundamentally about the answer?’  
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