Laurie Penny: Niall Ferguson and Michael Gove

Historians in the News

[Laurie Penny is a writer, journalist and feminist activist from London.]

The Tories want our children to be proud of Britain's imperial past. When right-wing colonial historian Niall Ferguson told the Hay Festival last weekend that he would like to revise the school history curriculum to include "the rise of western domination of the world" as the "big story" of the last 500 years, Education Secretary Michael Gove leapt to his feet to praise Ferguson's "exciting" ideas - and offer him the job.

Ferguson is a poster-boy for big stories about big empire, his books and broadcasting weaving Boys' Own-style tales about the British charging into the jungle and jolly well sorting out the natives. The Independent's Johann Hari, in his capacity as young bloodhound of the liberal left, sniffed out Ferguson's suspicious narrative of European cultural supremacy in a series of articles in 2006, calling him "a court historian for the imperial American hard right," as Harvard-based Ferguson believes that the success of the British Empire should be considered a model for US foreign policy....

What should shock about these appointments is not just the suspect opinions of...Ferguson, but the fact that the Tories have fundamentally misunderstood the entire purpose of history. History, properly taught, should lead young people to question and challenge their cultural inheritance rather than simply 'celebrating' it. "Studying the empire is important, because it is an international story, but we have to look at it from the perspective of those who were colonised as well as from the British perspective," said historian and political biographer Dr Anthony Seldon, who is also Master of Wellington College. "We live in an interconnected word, and to one has to balance learning about british history with learning about other cultures."

The ways in which schools and governments structure and promote stories about a country's past, the crimes they conceal and the truths they twist, have a lasting effect on young minds. It is not for nothing that the most fearsome dictators of the twentieth century, from Hitler to Chairman Mao, altered their school history curricula as a matter of national urgency. Even now, the school board of the state of Texas is re-writing the history syllabus to sanitise slavery and sideline major figures such as Thomas Jefferson, who called for separation of Church and State. That the Tories, too, wish to return us to a 'traditionalist' model of history teaching should thoroughly disabuse the Left of the notion that the Conservative party has no ideological agenda....
Read entire article at Laurie Penny at The New Statesman

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Rodney McCaslin - 6/2/2010

This is the worst kind of biased reporting and (one must assume) ignorance based hatchet job on a historian's work that I have yet read posted on HNN.
As anyone who has read Ferguson's work, or seen his television documentaries would be aware, whatever one feels about Ferguson's political ideology, he is hardly a Boy's own writer of big stories about big empire. Penny portrays him as a 21st century G.H. Henty. Indeed, as the citation to Hari's comments back in 2006 show, Laurie Penny clearly hasn't read or seen (or if she has she has she's blinded by her own preconceptions and prejudices) or understood Ferguson's work which deals primarily with economic history.
Ferguson's recommendations about teaching the "ascent of the west" (however Michael Gove interpreted them) have nothing to do with John Bullish or Blimpishness, or even political conservatism. The rise of the west, and how the world has dealt with it,is indeed a pretty "big story." The fact that he wants the story taught as a 500 year epic rather than "all Hitler all the time," which is the direction that much of British school history has taken recently, is encouraging and valid.