The world wars formed a significant and central platform of my curriculum. It is well documented that the Nazis form the cornerstone of historical learning at school – and those who say the period is given too heavy an emphasis are probably right.
But the problem of history teaching in British schools and universities is more profound than that. It really is as Michael Gove describes; years of what accurately can be described as Leftist propaganda, delivered by a profession dominated on the whole by Leftist figures.
I studied the Crimean War at GCSE. The work of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole was lauded, the inept and out-of-touch British Army officers belittled. We watched The Charge of the Light Brigade, the 1968 film portraying the incompetence of the British military leadership. Produced during the Vietnam War, the film reflected the anti-war sentiment central both to the period and to the lessons I attended.
Thrown into my course was the tale of the Cold War world and the escapades of the “brutal neo-colonialist Americans”, not least during that brutal proxy war in Indochina.
We watched Apocalypse Now in class when studying that conflict, the Oscar-winning Hollywood epic starring Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, and Marlon Brando. Specifically, we were shown the graphic inhumanity of American napalm attacks. Both the method and the content of the lessons had a Left-wing agenda.
At A-level, my history course was heavily based around the American Civil Rights movement and the Russian revolution. My teacher, whom I liked and respected but fundamentally disagreed with on countless areas, was a self-proclaimed anarchist. He openly called for the dismantling of liberal democracy.
Not taking his gospel at face value, I was probably made more Right-wing by him, a fact that was conveyed to him by my mother at a parents’ evening. I fear I was in the minority. The sons and daughters of Liberal Democrat voting teachers, nurses and doctors were much more receptive to his persuasive classroom rhetoric.
We would listen to Black American music in the classroom, encouraged to pay particular attention to the lyrics as a means of comprehending the race struggle.
We would listen to the powerful oratory of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael – framed and hailed as heroes.
The lessons were a hive of intellectual activity. The limits of the curriculum were stripped away and grades put by the wayside, for something else was the priority.
This was one of the best state schools in the country for a reason – it rightly encouraged independent thought and taught beyond the prescriptive box-ticking curriculum. But the history teachers still indoctrinated, and these were teachers at a grammar school in one of the safest Tory seats in the country.
Then, at university, the module options ranged from the bizarre to the ridiculous. Conventional political and military history has been broadly consigned to the dustbin by contemporary academics. They are traditional relics, we were told as undergraduates, and social and cultural history must come to the fore.
I arrived on campus, a mere 18 years old, excited to be studying a history joint honours degree at a university recently ranked in the UK’s top-five for doing just that. I was looking forward to looking at modern British history, the study of Empire, the Napoleonic Wars, continental tussles through the ages and the great historical players and actors.
I was met with something rather different. Learning about the past can no longer be done by looking at kings, queens, politicians, battles and landmark events, I was told. Instead, we should study the music, food, diaries and other such social and cultural markers of ordinary, average people.
This type of historical study may have its merits, of course. But it was the extent to which traditional methods were discarded that shocked me. As in life, surely there must be a reasonable balance?
I had an entire final year module devoted to The Beatles and their impact on Sixties social change, as key actors in Left-wing direct action and upheaval. The tutor, much like my teacher at school, was a huge sympathiser.
He too was a fine lecturer and we had an excellent relationship. But the fact a major section of my history degree was based on the Left-wing ramblings of John Lennon and Yoko Ono says all you need to know about the predominance of Left-wingers in our educational establishments. His specialism, for your information, a leading history tutor at one of our top universities, was 20th-century love.
We studied Asian development through the centuries as a means of attacking brutal British imperialism (incidentally taught via the medium of contemporary novels). We learnt about the European Union, painted as the great continental peacemaker. We learnt about Barack Obama’s remarkable grassroots fundraising efforts to beat the idiotic American Republicans and Tea Party crew.
We were encouraged to read critiques of Obama’s presidency, not from those on the centre and Right who had concerns about healthcare reform or a weak and disjointed foreign policy, but just those on the Left like Tariq Ali, friend of the aforementioned Malcolm X and John Lennon, who bemoaned Obama for not being as radically Left-wing as first hoped.
And we listened to attack after attack on Right-wing organisations, such as the Cato and Adam Smith Institute, from bitter and biased professors.
Looking back now, it was all the more extraordinary. Both what was taught and the way it was conveyed was so incredibly partisan.
In one of my modules, we were given the opportunity to choose a particular form of historical study and write an analytical essay on its merits and deficiencies. Intrigued by Niall Ferguson’s work in the counterfactual field, I asked whether I could look at “what if?” questions and their function for etiology. That took some pleading, Ferguson being widely isolated in the academic community, as one of the few conservative historians, his work sneered upon.
I am not bemoaning a vacuum of historical truth telling, for every individual has his or her own prejudices. My issue is that the pendulum has swung so far in the favour of the Left it has almost shifted a full 180 degrees.
Even when traditional heavyweight topics are studied, they are framed and layered with a notable Leftist predisposition.
When it came to my dissertation, I managed to retreat to something more traditional, in the form of British defence policy and the Falklands conflict. Luckily, my supervisor was just about the only in the department without a Left-wing grudge to bear. To be expected I suppose, as an expert in intelligence and strategic defence.
But my point is, Michael Gove is right, as he is on a lot of things. He might be Satan to the Left, the teaching unions and professionals in schools who will resist change at all costs, but he is the best education secretary in my lifetime.
He understands the problems in our state schools. And he understands the problems with history as it currently is taught.
He must be allowed to change history teaching for the better.