Schama’s curriculum ≠ a unified national myth

Gove’s appointment of Schama to develop a “return to coherent, gripping history” in schools is an act of nostalgia.1 As with all nostalgia it is reductive, kitsch and twee.

You can see the desire in it: a singular narrative of how our country developed. You can certainly see the use in it: ensuring the inception of useful citizens. Productive and patriotic citizens. But such a narrative is unsupportable nowadays. The last time it was of true relevance was in the days of empire, the story of how the map came to be coloured red. In the postcolonial world, such a teleology is quite frankly embarrassing. It plays at imperialism, leads us into believing the fictions that we weave about ourselves: how clever we are and how much better we are. How Great we are.

That is a world that has gone. Globalisation, multiculturalism and the decline of our own imperial assets, influence and ambition has put paid to that. As has the experience of two global conflicts at the intersection of the national narratives the empires of Europe and the world told themselves. National identity has in many ways splintered. Fragmented, it—like a mirror—cannot be pieced back into a uniform whole. Affixing the shards together cannot produce a mirror again, rather a new creation more interesting and challenging. One that does not pretend at reflecting a true image of the subject.

The current politics of identity have many points of friction but also various strengths. They necessitate greater co-operation, as a result of which we have avoided, at least in our back garden, the outbreak of war since WWII.2 And they can be more inclusive. Now we can talk of British history, or Welsh history, or Black history, or woman’s history.3 Such narratives are plural, and we should relish the polyvalence this affords to our understanding of the past.

History is dead. Histories are here to stay.


  1. James Vernon. ‘School history gets the TV treatment’. The Guardian (Tuesday 16 November 2010).

  2. Ok, so i couldn’t  get through the whole of this piece without invoking Godwin’s Law!
  3. Or, *shudders*, “herstory” .


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