Tis Pity He’s A Law (Unto Himself)

The BBC experimented with a new form of public history over the weekend, in which a lecture presented by Niall Ferguson on the causes of World War One became the keystone of a debate on air and online, which as well as being open to all those who tuned in and had internet access included a truly stupendous lineup of academic historians. Despite some misgivings, about the format generally and some of Ferguson’s history specifically, I think the idea was a great one and should definitely be repeated. I thought I’d jot down here some more comments about the whole thing. The History Ferguson’s star power was clearly a big selling point for the BBC, and he very much took pride of place – I’ll address some of the problems that created in a moment, but I also wanted to highlight some of the very real problems in Ferguson’s historical argument. Ferguson is no academic lightweight and has written directly (in a book also titled The Pity of War) on the points he covered in the programme. Moreover his central thesis–that WW1 was a straightforward conflict of imperial conquest, and Britain would have been better off out of it–is on the face of it a reasonable interpretation of the facts. However, in arguing his case, there were points where Ferguson dismissed or failed to even mention evidence in a manner that was slapdash at best: commenting that a higher percentage of the French population was in military service than that of Germany ignores the fact that France has a smaller population; bringing up the spate of German surrenders in the closing months of the war whilst failing to mention the Ludendorff Offensives of early 1918 avoids making clear that the Allies decisively defeated them (thus undermining Ferguson’s argument about the superiority of German soldiery, itself based on some suspect use of statistics which ignored the strategic disposition of forces); implying that a Kaiserreich customs-union would have been substantially similar to the European Union is a piece of counter-factual reasoning too obtuse to be of any use (as someone else commented, “What if the Aztecs had attacked, what then?”). These are the kinds of historical cheap shots which undermined the seriousness of Ferguson’s argument, and for the first time made clear to me why he is rumoured to be the basis of Irwin in The History Boys, offering easy controversy as a substitute for complex reasoning. The Format That said, given that Ferguson was clearly calling the shots on this programme, he deserves significant credit for being willing to cede a lot of screen time to a line up of academics who, by and large, tore his argument to pieces. Heather Jones, Gary Sheffield, David Reynolds and Hew Strachan amongst others responded to Ferguson’s arguments robustly. This was by far the best part of the programme and the BBC should be congratulated for having gathered such an impressive line up… But the very fact of how impressive the line up was made it frustrating that we didn’t hear more from them, and more discussion between them. The role assigned to the historians was to dispute with Ferguson, and given how outlandish some of his claims were and how easily knocked down, this seemed a waste. I’d have preferred if the programme had addressed itself to, say, five key questions about the war and asked a different historian to take each in turn before that historian could chair discussion on that issue. Gary Sheffield suggested to me that the BBC is overly obsessed with celebrity historians: my only response is that every single historian interviewed that night could clearly carry a programme on their own, indeed some of them already have, so why not expand the pool of celebrity historians? Other aspects of the format also jarred. All the shiny special effects were unnecessary, and indeed illustrated to be so by the occasional sudden flashes of AJP Taylor talking directly to camera with nary an animated map or neon bar graph (though he was rocking a quite exceptional green shirt and tie combo). The “final thought” speech from Ferguson at the end was not just a bit cheesy, it also summed up a debate that hadn’t happened (i.e., one in which anybody else had agreed with Ferguson). Overall, Ferguson had too much of a commanding role, was at times bending the rules of history to suit himself and left a sense that most historical debate is just statements of personal preference rather than evidenced rigorous debate. But all-in-all, The Pity of War was a welcome mark of the BBC treating history as a serious endeavour and historians as people worth putting on the tele. Now, if it can only strengthen that commitment, it’ll be doing very well indeed.

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“Daddy, what did YOU do in the Mr Men War?”

So, we come to it at last: the great educational battle of our time. And it’s as much about the Mr Men as the War of Jenkin’s Ear was about that unfortunate mariner’s flesh, waved in anger in the House of Commons. Instead, the Mr Men War is about two distinct issues, one a question of pedagogy, the other a question of power. As a teacher of History, the subject battleground on which the war is currently being fought, I have an interest in the former; as a political activist whose major interest is education, I think there is lot to discuss in the later. As both, I’m mildly despairing that the education establishment has decided to argue via the medium of cartoons… But, for what it’s worth, here’s my contribution to the Mr Men War. Pedagogy: is it alright to teach the Nazis using the Mr Men? No. I didn’t used to think that – not long ago, I’d have defended the activity as a valid and useful piece of classroom business that gave the students the chance to display their knowledge in an interesting way. I’ve never done this particular activity, but in my time I’ve asked students to do things that are very similar. Certainly, I’ve used the idea of getting older students to devise ways of teaching young students to shape lessons. It is the experience of having done that, however, that has made me question the usefulness and validity of this and other activities. For a start, unless there are actual real live younger students to teach, asking students to simplify their ideas for a younger audience just results in them simplifying their ideas for themselves, partly because if the younger students are theoretical, students have no way of testing whether they are effectively transferring knowledge to them, and thus whether they have enough knowledge to begin with; if they can’t be stumped by a younger student’s question in a way which makes them think “I need to go back and learn more to answer that question”, what’s the point? If the students are real, then having gone to the effort of getting a primary class in, I’d probably hope for a stronger intellectual outcome than the Mr Men activity implies. I think that the the rise to power of the Nazi Party is an intellectually stimulating story in and of itself, and whilst I often ask students to represent narratives in different forms, I don’t really see the point of asking students to make that story more simple. Of course, as I’ve suggested above, the specific activity itself, isn’t the entire point: Sue Cowley’s blog suggests that the issue is one about creativity versus knowledge in the curriculum itself. I’d need a longer post to fully explore my views on the foundations of the curriculum, but I think Cowley is missing the point here, as does Miss Smith here: a list of activities you remember, or things that were creative and that your enjoyed, isn’t a list of things you have learned. Whilst it might be good if students are enjoying themselves in lessons, this is no necessary correlation between that and learning. Indeed, given that learning new things is hard it is quite possible much of it will not be enjoyable: the fun in History isn’t in the method of learning but in being able to talk confidently about the past and the discipline of History. That students are learning, and are learning as much as the can do, is surely the correct test of a lesson. Politics: is it alright for the Secretary of State to call out particular lessons and teachers? Yes. If someone writes something on a website, especially something designed as an exemplar for others to follow, then you have to accept a critique of that, from wherever it comes. That the Secretary of State has a pretty big pulpit to critique from shouldn’t be a problem for those who are confident in their practice – after all, he has actually surrendered the power to tell most of us what to teach in the classroom anyway, so one might argue his view is pretty irrelevant. If you believe you can defend your teaching as providing students the progress they need, then there is little to fear. Moreover, for years, teachers have complained that ministers don’t understand them and don’t listen to them. Now we’ve got a Secretary of State who, whatever you might think about what he is doing, is extremely well briefed on education and is obviously reading the direct views of teachers, as put out on their blogs. Even those of us who are politically opposed to him can be pretty certain he and other politicians are reading our work. Given that, it just seems a little lightweight and something of a missed opportunity to churn out smug patronising stuff like this from Cowley, or this from Paul Bernal, or another petulant piece of education agitprop from Rosen. If policy-makers are reading this stuff, why not write something persuasive, rather than something that treats politicians like they’re all idiots? To his credit, Russell Tarr did respondwith clarity about the purpose of his lesson and though I don’t agree with him, I think it is to his credit that engaged in this way. Argument between practitioners and politicians in a web environment with no gatekeepers is a big part of the future of education policy making: those on the frontline speaking and arguing directly with policy-makers. But for that dynamic to thrive, those of us on the frontline have to accept that–like learning–argument doesn’t have to be enjoyable to be engaging.

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