Saturday, 17 July 2010

The Tories Treat History as a Game

Recently the Guardian newspaper which at the moment seems to be a mouthpiece for the historian Niall Ferguson reported his call to “shake up history curriculum with TV and war games”.

Earlier this year the current Conservative –Liberal government had asked the ultra-right wing historian to re-write the National Curriculum for history in schools. It is entirely in keeping with this right wing government that it should ask an apologist for imperialism to select his own brand of history to impose on unsuspecting pupils.

Ferguson was quoted as saying “History books make the mistake of teaching about old men, most of history is made by young people “. He wants to do for history what “Jamie Oliver has done for school food – make it healthy, and so they actually want to eat it".

Niall Ferguson has called it time to get rid of what he calls 'junk history' He has bemoaned that Pupils know too much about Martin Luther King but not enough about Martin Luther. But this comment is really a smokescreen behind which he seeks to establish a “proper traditional history’”. This is kind of history which sees only the history of the rich and famous seeks to defend the interest of the rich and famous. It is doubtful that the working masses and their history will get a look in.

Since coming to power, the Tories have courted Ferguson. Education secretary, Michael Gove called him a "modern Macaulay", and congratulated him for studying "the legacy of the British empire with a balanced mind, accepting its manifold evils, but also ready to acknowledge its progressive side".

The British historian Niall Ferguson is perhaps is the most identifiable historian with the “right-wing, Eurocentric vision of western ascendancy”, Ferguson has spoken at the Guardian Hay festival, when he said that children should be given the "big story" of the last 500 years "is the rise of western domination of the world".

Ann Talbot said“ All British historians, E.H. Carr once said, are Whigs, even the Tories—but not in Niall Ferguson’s case. He is a Tory formed in the Thatcherite mould, who cut his teeth writing for Conrad Black’s Daily Telegraph while he was a research student in Germany. He is also one of the most prolific historians working today. His most recent book Colossus, a study of American imperialism follows Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), The Cash Nexus: Money and Politics in Modern History 1700-2000 (2002), The House of Rothschild: Money’s Prophets, 1798-1848 (2003), The House of Rothschild, 1849-1998 (2002), The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (1999) and Virtual Histories: Alternative and Counterfactuals (1997). Every one of them is a thick doorstop of a book”.

At the Hay festival, Ferguson was forced to defend his views when some members of the audience accused him of not being interested “in the fates of the oppressed”. This provoked an angry reply from Ferguson who railed at "the militant tendency" in the audience and said: "Can we get away from this right-wing-historian, apologist-for-empire crap?"

Ferguson who despite being an able historian has only a working knowledge of the current curriculum. Listing some of his teaching aids: "We need to use television. The reason I do TV is that I think it's a more accessible way of education," he says. "I think we also need to use games."

While having repeatedly saying that the history Second World War has been flogged to death in schools it has not stopped him no doubt lucrative according to the Guardian to have “collaborated with a US software developer to create a second world war-based video game for use as a classroom aid, and believes role-playing would help students understand the choices that shaped history”. “History is more like a match than it is a novel because you don't know, when you're in it, what the end is going to be.

"You can re-run world war two, you can explore strategy, and you can come up with a plausible alternative past. It's exciting to young people – my teenage son, and his little brother has been my consultants on this." The game, entitled The War of the World, claims to bring "real grand strategy gaming to World War II". The developer describes it as a chance for players to lead a nation and remake history "from the factories and shipyards on the home front, to epic battles across the globe".

Quite how you would treat events such as the Holocaust as a game would be worth seeing. Perhaps the player could be in charge of a concentration camp. Perhaps one of the inmates or a driver of the trains that took Jews to their deaths. What about the firebombing of Dresden the gamer could be an RAF pilot dropping the incendiaries on the defenceless population.
He then goes on to say that "History books make the mistake of teaching about old men, often with a beard. Most of history is made by young people. I'm an old guy by historical standards, at 46. Child soldiers in Africa? There were lots of child soldiers in the Napoleonic wars. It's all about making history young."

Whether there is a crisis of history study in education is contentious. Ferguson produces little research on this matter. The Guardian cites “last year about 219,000 pupils took history at GCSE, compared with more than 300,000 who took design and technology”. If this is the case then rather than seeking to dumb down the study of history with games why not call a roundtable of leading national and international historians to discuss the matter.

But this is not really about a supposed decline in history in schools this is really about what kind of historical narrative is to dominate. Ferguson is “keen to restore an overarching story, based on western ascendancy”.

He has repeatedly denied that he is an apologist for empire, but that is largely what he is. In Colossus, he suggests the US is “an empire in denial”.

Opposition to Ferguson

Thankfully there has been no lack of opposition to the Tories and Ferguson's attempt to teach history through games. Historian Antony Beevor did not support the idea "Playing counterfactual? To be perfectly honest there's more than enough you need to learn about the basic structure before you start playing hypothetical," he said. However, he was supportive of Ferguson's approach to history's grand narrative. "I think the basic idea is right. It's fascinating to study the rise of the West because then you get to consider the decline of the west in the course of the next few years. It's fascinating to look at why China and India, with their own very advanced cultures, did not flourish."

Colin Jones, president of the Royal Historical Society, warned that Ferguson risked slipping into a Samuel Huntingdon-style clash of civilisations. “The history that he has in mind has the risk of making the distinctions between different groups appear more real than they are. “It homogenises culture, so French culture is characterised by shrugging and having revolutions and the British by being phlegmatic and not having revolutions."

Ferguson appears to be one of a new generation of historians who are increasingly eager to revise the judgement of earlier researchers who broadly supported a more left centred narrative and replace it with a very right-wing historical narrative which is dressed up as making history fun in schools.

It is important to know about a method in the historical study it is even more important to know your historian as E H Carr said "Study the historian before you begin to consider the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the talented undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St. Jude's, goes round to a friend at St. Jude's to ask what sort of chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf, or your historian is a dull dog. The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmongers' slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean, and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use - these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation. Indeed, if, standing Sir George Clark on his head, I were to call history "a hard core of interpretation surrounded by a pulp of disputable facts," my statement would, no doubt, be one-sided and misleading, but no more so, I venture to think, than the original dictum.

Ferguson cannot replace one way of studying history by another without attacking and trashing evidence and principles of historical methodology.

As Ann Talbot said of Fergusson’s book the Pity of War “At a cursory glance, all the apparatus of a history book is present in The Pity of War. There are extracts from contemporary accounts by statesmen, generals and ordinary soldiers from all sides; there are statistics, economic, military and sociological; there are contemporary photographs showing scenes of carnage and men relaxing behind the lines. There are, of course, extensive footnotes. The immediate impression is of a book at once scholarly yet sensitive. On closer inspection, however, a very different book emerges. It is a carefully camouflaged glorification of war”.
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