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Hodder History Expert Blog

The great Blackadder debate
By Ben Walsh
09 Jan
The First World War debate: Memory, Myth and Soundbites

I have quite enjoyed the Gove-induced WW1 flurry which has overtaken Twitter and the media more generally. And there have been some great comments. From the point of view of educational policy, I leave comment to better and wiser people than me. But I am a bit of a WW1 buff and have been on my own journey in this respect. With some trepidation I point out that I think you can see this by looking at the WW1 chapters in the three editions of my GCSE Modern World History textbook and see how they have changed  … or maybe developed … ok, improved! I hope that is is also evident in the UK National Archives resource on The Great War which had at its very heart the intention to present the war as a complex and multi-layered phenomenon.
 
Anyway, back to the debate on Twitter and the blogosphere. There have been lots of commentaries, some incisive, some not so much. For me there have been a few personal favourites:
 
Paul Reed's Blackadder: A War Crime? This nails the essence of the frustration about the whole debate as he points out that there probably is a Blackadderisation problem but that it is certainly not a left-right issue.
 
Jessica Meyer’s Of Historians and Politicians. First of all this post introduced me to a new living, breathing character from WW1, David Randle McMaster. Meyer uses McMaster’s letters to reconstruct a believable and authentic figure, committed to the war and conflicted by his experiences of it, the very antithesis of the cardboard cut-out histories demanded by politicians and the media for their precious soundbites. She also reminds us of the way in which the word ‘myth’ has become misunderstood and misused. It is commonly used as a synonym for an inaccuracy or a lie, but in reality a myth is a story which carries some deeper meaning and purpose. A myth can be affirming or damaging, or both. But a myth is usually powerful and seductive and – the key point – memorable. It would be foolish to think that a myth is unimportant, and we have so many examples from history of how a myth can sweep away reasoned debate. I would also encourage all readers to consider Meyer’s follow up post Why am I still writing about Michael Gove?   
 
 Is Gove an anti-historian?

In this follow up post Meyer looks at the cultural history of the war, or more specifically, how popular and high culture has interpreted and assimilated particular versions of the war. Education Secretary Michael Gove’s view of this construct of WW1 as a left wing conspiracy can be swiftly dismissed for the politicking that it is. Historians of any and all persuasions have been queuing up to point out that this is an historiographical debate, not an ideological one. Harsher critics of Gove might describe him as one of the band of anti-historians, the term used by US historian Fritz Fisher of commentators who call for a version of history to be taught in schools which is either inaccurate or partisan (or both) and is designed to serve present day agendas (see this blog from the Hodder History nest). As an aside to this, I wonder whether the Secretary of the State, picturing the brave Tommy in WW1, pictured him standing alongside his Sikh colleague, or his Algerian ally, or the Chinese Labour Corps workers toiling away?
 
Less harsh critics might regard this as an example of ‘Whitehall syndrome’ in which politicians and civil servants ‘discover’ an issue and start from the assumption that it can and will only be addressed through their guidance and direction.
 
The usually shrewd Sam Freedman (@Samfr), former policy adviser to Gove, posted that he thought Gove was trying to provoke debate about WW1. I can only assume that was a mischievous or ironic comment given the year we are in and the cultural significance of WW1 – surely cultural activity takes place in this country even without the Education Secretary there to kick start it? If you want to be really mean minded about such motives, perhaps Gove’s actions, and the attitude of Freedman is an example of what Fiona Millar claims is the predominant force in policymaking – a relatively small band of political insiders working in think tanks who regard those with genuine expertise with suspicion and believe that only they have the intellectual gifts and practical insight to make education policy work. Millar’s claim of an ideologically driven Department for Education uninterested in contradictory views and equally uninterested in evidence which contradicted its convictions was certainly strengthened by my experience of the Curriculum Review process and given rather more significant support by Professor David Cannadine.
 
There has been a lighter not to the criticisms of Gove too. Cartoonist Martin Rowson produced a wonderful homage to Bruce Bairnsfather’s iconic cartoon and medieval historian Marc Morris (@Longshanks1307) deftly and amusingly lampooned Gove on Twitter:
All this free publicity for historians of WWI almost makes me wish #Gove would say something equally fatuous about the Norman Conquest.
The satirical potential for a debate on whether Harold Godwinson’s forces lost in 1066 because of the effect of left wing revisionist chroniclers undermining Alfred the Great remains (sadly) as yet untapped but the question of non-historians commenting on WW1 and other issues remains important.
 
Perceptions of WW1

Whether we like it or not, history in general and WW1 in particular, is more than the property of historians. And this has an impact on public perceptions of that conflict and also on perceptions in the minds of school pupils. In this respect Gove may well be right that this perception is the prevailing one. I think he may well be, but since there is no evidence to sustain this I am reluctant to assert it strongly. There is even less evidence that the perception comes from the way the subject is taught in history lessons. Non-teachers might ask where else would the perceptions come from. But experienced practitioners will point out that students come to lessons with all manner of preconceptions about many different topics from many different sources (see below). It may be that the University of Exeter Project on WW1 in the classroom will provide some robust evidence not only about pupil perceptions but also about where these perceptions come from.
 
So, do these ‘Blackadderish’ perceptions of WW1 emerge from history classrooms or do they emerge from English classes which are making powerful use of powerful material and are overpowering the version of WW1 taught in history classrooms?
 
Or is the history classroom version being overpowered by the wider media packaging of WW1 over many years? On a recent trawl in the Daily Mail Archive I found an article from 1957 about the ‘unimaginable horrors’ of WW1 – presumably Gove missed that in the research for his piece. And the media has much to answer for. Many of the comment columns in newspaper have been been written by people who are neither historians nor teachers. As Professor Gary Sheffield (@ProfGSheffield) drily commented, he is eagerly awaiting a commission to write about astrophysics as he meets the media’s requirement of no prior knowledge.  Historian Professor Sheffield has been doing a storming job in the media trying to present a sensible perspective on WW1 and grumpily sweeping aside fatuous attempts by journalists to address questions as to whether a historian is unpatriotic if he questions some aspect of the reasons for war or the conduct of it. In some ways more tellingly, Sheffield has also posted on numerous occasions when he has dismissed requests to advise on TV programmes being made for the WW1 centenary on the grounds that they were sentimental or otherwise intellectually invalid.
 
So as history teachers we are struggling against a powerful tide of myth. What can we do about it?

Working on our teaching of WW1

As history teachers, we are struggling against very powerful forces which drive the Blackadder myth. One of the first things we have to ask ourselves is whether we are inadvertently reinforcing this myth.
 
These pressures are extremely well described by history teacher John Blake in his recent piece in the TES. Blake also makes a strong case for the need to teach a complete version of the war with as many of its complexities as are realistically possible. There are resources out there which grapple with this complexity. At the risk of some shameless plugging I would like to feel that my Modern World History textbook, particularly the Second and Third Editions, do this. There is also the National Archives resource on the Great War mentioned above.
 
I would actually go a little further than Blake here. I suspect that one inadvertent outcome of our focus on WW1 is that it is the only war in which most teachers explore the hardships of being a soldier. Most other wars we teach are explored at the political and strategic level. Or we focus on Home Front or the Holocaust in the case of WW2. This is a personal view, but I suspect that in the minds of students they do not make comparisons and assume that a soldier’s life in other wars was also harsh. They simply remember being taught about harsh conditions of trenches on the Western Front (although even this is a complex issue) and unless they are taught is there any reason why they should think about the fact that soldiers in the American Civil War (or on the Eastern Front in WW2) went through very similar experiences? Why should they think to compare the different but equally harsh conditions in the jungles of Burma in 1944? Why would they think to compare casualty rates (not numbers) between the D-Day campaign of 1944 and the Battle of the Somme (not just the first day)? Or is there any reason why they would be aware that the home life of many of the recruits was incredibly hard as well and that army life could be actually be an improvement on home life, especially if you were one of the very large proportion who never actually saw a front line trench.
 
Taking this wider approach could involve another entire unit looking at whether WW1 was worse than other wars. Or they could investigate whether it was more horrific, or was it just fought on a larger scale involving a larger percentage of the population and as a result has had a much larger impact on popular memory. Equally, it would be possible to use Youtube clips of the battle scenes in Cold Mountain and Saving Private Ryan to quickly illustrate that other wars, indeed all wars, are horrific. That might do more justice to the memory of those who fought and provide useful food for thought.
 
As a final thought, can I recommend, as an antidote to Blackadder, the podcast of the episode from the Michael Portillo series Things We Forgot To Remember.  I have used it in conjunction with still images from the Imperial War Museum Collections (such as this one which is referred to in the Portillo broadcast) and also British Pathe archive clips such as this for instance.
 
Good luck!
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