Wednesday, 27 February 2013

In Defence of Narrative History

Michael Gove's draft History syllabus has been published, greeted with praise by popular historians and predictable scorn from academia's "Oxonian spires".

Historian Niall Ferguson, who advised on the new syllabus, offered a defence of the reformed curriculum in The Guardian, building on arguments first advanced at Jesus College in a debate with Richard Evans:

"Why do critics feel obliged to defend a status quo that so many teachers, parents and pupils agree is indefensible?"

"From Cambridge no less a personage than Richard Evans, the Regius Professor of History, condemned Gove's attempt to restore "rote learning of the patriotic stocking-fillers so beloved of traditionalists".

According to Evans, the new curriculum was "a Little England version of our national past, linked to an isolationist view of our national future". It constituted "a mindless regression to the patriotic myths of the Edwardian era".

From Oxford came the echo.  David Priestland said it was a "depressingly narrow … resolutely insular … politicised and philistine" document. "We are … firmly back in the land of the Edwardian bestseller Our Island Story."


Quite why the professors feel obliged to defend a status quo that so many teachers, parents and pupils agree is indefensible I cannot work out. Is it sheer ignorance? Or partisan prejudice?

Surely they can't sincerely think it's acceptable for children to leave school (as mine have all done) knowing nothing whatever about the Norman conquest, the English civil war or the Glorious Revolution, but plenty (well, a bit) about the Third Reich, the New Deal and the civil rights movement?"

Well, indeed  but Professor Ferguson has missed a trick here in his failure to take the anti-British "progressives" to task for their unjustifiable denigration of H E Marshall's wonderful Our Island Story.

This classic and beautifully illustrated masterpiece of the once-proud narrative tradition puts the drab and colourless style of most modern British historians to shame — devoid as they are of any true affection for their subject; adopting a slavish deference to "academic impartiality" wherever opportunities for modish, contemporary judgement do not present themselves.

I could not recommend the volume more highly 
— nor its companion volumes Scotland's Story and Our Empire Story.  

(Click on the images above for links to the books' Amazon pages.)

An enormous debt of gratitude is owed to organisations such as the 
Civitas Institute, which have worked to keep these marvellous books in print.

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