Thursday 9 January 2014

Gove's bashing of "left wing" historians is a sad indication on how he views history

The UK's Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has been in the news lately for complaining about left wing academics and their insufficiently "patriotic" version of the First World War, which feed into a likewise unhappy media image:

"Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.

The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles - a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths."

It's interesting that pointing out the failures of the military leadership of the war is equated with denigrating the courage of those who fought - the very phrase lions led by donkeys is meant to highlight their courage in contrast to the leadership - and it almost seems like Gove's definition of "patriotism" is loyalty to the elite. Question the soundness of General Haig's strategy of repeatedly making soldiers walk slowly across open ground towards machine-gun fire? Clearly you have little love for the troops or Britain.

More worrying is the approach taken to academia. Debating the history and the merits of generals or the justness of the war is a good thing - and critical thinking and discussion needs to be encouraged. But using politics as a shorthand to exclude arguments is sloppy and wrong. This is the man responsible for the education system calling academics "left wing" to imply that they and their academic work is untrustworthy and biased. Are papers on history published in academic journals by authors with left wing political views less reliable or worthwhile simply because of their political views? Of course, this "left wing" view of history isn't necessarily reserved to the left. Notably, Oh! What a Lovely War is inspired by a book by a Conservative MP.

If Gove personally distrusts the work of historians simply because it appears to have, in his opinion, a left wing bias or because it finds itself at odds with the government's aims (or the war propaganda at the time), then that's his business. But it's a poor basis for teaching history or commemorating the war.

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