Thursday 6 February 2014

WW1 - what a decent Secretary of State for Education would do

Here's a challenge to Michael Gove and the Ministry of Education instead of trying to hit the headlines with abuse of supposedly 'left-wing' interpretations of the First World War; instead of trying to create a fixed ideological interpretation of the war offered without evidence or research; instead of trying to swing the whole of education behind this interpretation - Michael Gove and the Ministry could and should do something altogether different.

With digital communication, we are now in a unique position of being able to have an instant European-wide debate about the First World War. I suggest that Michael Gove and the Ministry stop trying to influence the serious matter of collecting evidence and having an open debate about this moment of history. They should instead use the resources they have at their disposal, help create a digital discussion between a wide number of European researchers and historians to discuss the many aspects of the First World War and its interpretations.

This could take the form, say, of a week-long digital teach-in which could be streamed live and then kept up on line. Various edited forms of the teach-in could be offered. Simultaneous translations would make it accessible to all. Text versions could be provided too.

This would inform and engage. It would stimulate debate. Educationally, it would show students of all ages how history is a matter of debate and discussion, with evidence and information at its core.

Incidentally, it would also show that Michael Gove misused his position of power and access to the media. It wasn't simply a matter of one person 'expressing his opinion' - as we are all entitled to do. By virtue of his position, he has a very particular 'voice' which is beamed out to all. This gives him a kind of false place in the matter of authority. In terms of how historical debate between historians is concerned, Michael Gove has no authority to say what he said about the War. His 'authority' is only that of someone who finds that he holds a post in government. It so happens it's a post which has now accrued more personal power than almost any other government post.

This episode shows a sinister development. Michael Gove, from this position of great power has expressed a highly partisan, politically specific view of a major event in history and urged schools and colleges to adopt this view. It's bad governance, bad historical work and bad educational practice.

We should think up alternatives to this way of going on. I have suggested here, just one possibility, albeit as a way of pointing out what a serious democratic secretary of state would do, one who was interested in true intellectual engagement, inquiry and education.