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  • Writer's pictureSeb Falk

Matthew Arnold, Michael Faraday, and Michael Gove

Updated: May 13, 2020

To those who have managed to keep up with the astounding pace of policy changes flowing from the Department for Education in recent months, it will come as no surprise to see Secretary of State Michael Gove quoting Matthew Arnold in the introduction to his new National Curriculum.  The draft curriculum, which was released for consultation last week, begins with this as the first of two Aims:

The National Curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.

You may (especially if you listened to the excellent "Value of Culture" series on BBC Radio 4 recently), recognise this as directly quoting Culture and Anarchy, by the Victorian poet, critic and schools inspector.  Arnold wrote:

The whole scope of the essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.

So, what is on this new Victorian’s list of “the best that has been thought and said”?

Well, in History at least (the subject I taught for 5 years), it seems that the omission of Arnold’s “in the world” is significant: the new curriculum focuses squarely on British – and usually English – history.  And we get a very clear idea of what bits of British history are to be taught: unlike the current curriculum, which is deliberately non-prescriptive, the draft programme of study (pages 166-171) is laid out in considerable detail, almost as chapter headings of the new textbooks which the publishing/examining conglomerates are sure to rush into print.  Unlike the present system, which does not insist on the study of any single person (Olaudah Equiano and William Wilberforce are named, but only in passing: “the work of people such as…”), the proposed new regime hopes to drum in knowledge of dozens of famous figures, from Alfred and Athelstan through “Clive of India” and Christopher Wren, to Attlee and Margaret Thatcher.

There’s a curious dissonance in the publication of such a prescriptive curriculum by an education secretary who boasts of giving unprecedented freedom to schools.  (The level of prescriptive detail has been criticised even by one of Gove’s strongest supporters, the economic historian and free-market apologist Niall Ferguson.)

Despite considerable media interest in the proposed curriculum, the most significant change has barely been mentioned.  The content for Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14) starts in the mid-17th century with “The Enlightenment in England” (a topic that, curiously from an Education Secretary born and raised in Aberdeen, includes the proud Scot Adam Smith).  This means that the earlier history of Britain, from the Stone Age through to the Glorious Revolution and 1707 Acts of Union, will be taught in primary schools (Key Stage 2, ages 7-11), where teachers are highly unlikely to be history specialists.

As a medievalist, I am worried by this.  But I do also recognise the sense in ending the repetition that currently exists between primary and secondary history (typical class discussion: “We already learned about Henry VIII.” “Oh, did you?” “Yes. He was fat, and he had lots of wives.”).  And I can see that focusing the last 3 years of compulsory History in on the last 3 centuries of British history provides a great opportunity to include some fascinating content.

Here, almost for the first time, is the history of science.  “Scientists such as Isaac Newton or Michael Faraday” get a mention in Key Stage 1 (ages 5-7; if there are any primary school teachers reading this, I’d love to know how you would approach this topic).  In Key Stage 2 we have “Chaucer and the revival of learning” (there’s a whole blog post’s worth of debate in that title).  And Key Stage 3 gives us Bacon, Newton, the Royal Society and the Industrial Revolution (Watt, Stephenson and Brunel are named).

I would like to imagine that this will lead to innovative cross-curricular collaboration, as young people study Newtonian mechanics, Swiftian satire, and Voltaire in the original French, all put into broader context in their History classes.  Or at least, for the history of science, kids could learn about discoveries and the development of ideas, anchored in understanding of the societies and conditions in which they arose, rather than as isolated eureka moments or landmarks on the way to our current state of scientific perfection.

But since the bulk of the curriculum comprises topics such as “Britain and her Empire” (note the gendered pronoun), “the conquest of Canada”, and “the Indian Mutiny and the Great Game”, it seems that Gove’s aim, despite the modernising rhetoric in which it’s sometimes clothed, is the same old glorification of Our Island Story (1905) – “the story of the people of Britain [which] tells how they grew to be a great people” (p. 4).  Yes, I still have a copy, and yes, it’s a wonderful story – that’s all its author ever intended it to be.  But if it’s to be used as the basis for a 21st-century education it could do with some updating; and so, I fear, could Gove’s ideas.

Actually, he could do with studying Arnold more carefully.  The passage I quoted above continues: “and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits”.  Stock notions abound in the new history curriculum, but fresh and free thought?  That’s one deficit the government hasn’t made much progress in clearing.

Edit: click here to read the comments on my original blog post.

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