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‘Elaborate, Bloodstained Twaddle of Kings and Wives and Princes’: The History Wars

The prominence of the school history debates over the last year has brought to my mind echoes of voices I have encountered in my research on interwar British education. Recent scholarship on the history of history teaching in British schools over the twentieth century has brought a lot of the hyperbole surrounding this topic in public discussion into perspective. I want to draw attention to parallel debates over school history teaching in Britain in the interwar years, in order to reflect on why these discussions continue to command such a high cultural purchase.

H G Wells
H G Wells

The tussle between jingoistic and progressive advocates of school history teaching, which we have recently seen rehearsed by Michael Gove and his critics, has occurred before. In the years after 1918 many of the same issues that now surround the controversial re-drafting of Michael Gove’s school history curriculum in June 2013, were high on the agenda. The question of teaching history as a patriotic narrative of national accomplishments versus a more international story of events within which this nation has played its role, has been the pivot on which the debate turns. Then as now, the two camps were clearly defined and outspoken. In 2010, Michael Gove expressed regret that ‘children are growing up ignorant of one of the most inspiring stories I know – the history of our United Kingdom’, thus firmly placing himself in the ‘history-as-nationalism’ camp. His interlocutors have been drawn largely but not exclusively from the academic profession of history, scholars with a public presence such as Richard Evans and David Cannadine.

Britain emerged from a European war in 1918 deeply traumatized, and school history presented itself as one possible vehicle for shoring up various versions of identity and citizenship. The value of educational capital was compounded by the passing of the 1918 Education Act, which held promises to teach more pupils to a later age than ever before in the state system. Today, mass education up to the age of sixteen is a given, and we are both familiar with and wary of the potential our school system has to socialize its democratic citizens. We can, however, speculate that recent attempts to tell tales of national triumphs in school history teaching may reflect insecurities about Britain’s place in the world in the twenty-first century, or more partisan tensions surrounding Britain’s relationship with Europe.

In April 1919 a conference was held on the matter of history teaching. The conference was called by the President of the Board of Education, Herbert Fisher, and was attended by notable reformers and academics. The minutes make it clear that ‘it was necessary to adjust the teaching of History to the altered [political and educational] situation’. The delegation discussed the revision of the Board of Education’s 1908 circular on the teaching of history in secondary schools. This circular had called for the inclusion of ‘chief events of European history as is necessary for the understanding of English history’. From the vantage point of the 1919 conference, such an approach seemed inadequately parochial – the war had made the necessity of teaching of European and colonial history ‘obvious’.

Representative of the progressive agenda in the following years were efforts to teach the League of Nations in the classroom in order to educate citizens for a more peaceful and international future. The League’s cultural arm, the League of Nations Union, recommended school activities such as mock trials and playlets. The prominent medieval historian Eileen Power lectured publically for the League of Nations Union and supported the reaction against nationalistic teaching. She wrote in 1936, ‘It seems an essential purpose of history teaching in schools is to explain his wider as well as his narrower environment to the child, who is a future citizen of the world as well as Britain’.

Just as Michael Gove has invited professional historians such as Simon Schama into his fold as ‘history tsars’, the Board of Education held discussions with H G Wells and G M Trevelyan in the interwar years on the subject of school history teaching. Wells was particularly outspoken against the jingoistic approach he perceived to be evident in British schools. As he explained in an interview in October 1930, children are not interested in the ‘elaborate, bloodstained twaddle of kings and wives and princes, campaigns, annexations and national prestige with which we try-despite their wholesome instinctive resistance-to fill their minds today’.

Pushing back against this wave of progressivism (which was always more rhetoric than it was reality in the classroom), were those who sought to instill patriotism through history teaching in schools. One notable figure was the Anglo-French author Hilarie Belloc. He advocated a return to old-fashioned methods and accused progressives of ‘hijacking’ history to the nation’s detriment. He prepared a memo for Herbert Fisher in July 1919 on the use of cinema in history teaching, a revolutionary piece of teaching apparatus in 1919. Belloc believed that the film must be used to indoctrinate nationalism. His proposal was for a set of films illustrating ‘the chief episodes in English History, and presenting to the eye the habit and manners of the actors in the national story’. Belloc was keen to remind his reader that history was the only academic subject that had ‘certain practical utility for the State’.

These struggles over the heart of ‘history-citizenship’ in the interwar years held projections of what people thought national identity could or should be. Whilst it is clear that today’s society is very different, the similarities in public discourse around history teaching are strikingly similar. Today’s voices reacting against the jingoistic approach are not of course, like their 1918 counterparts, in pursuit of a specific peace. Instead they have pointed to immigration and multiculturalism as part of a modern national identity, as well as a more nuanced understanding of Britishness in the context of the relationship between England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. What is most interesting to me in both instances is the force of these school history debates as cultural and political tools, and the cultural authority commanded by those who wield them. Education rarely manages to excite the same level of public debate as it does when history teaching is in the mix. Likewise, politicians such as Michael Gove are fully aware that associations between ‘history’ and ‘the nation’ make school history a politically useful weapon. As historians, we should note that when these ‘history wars’ make their impassioned appearances, they are perhaps indicative of a moment in time when national consciousness is itself undergoing a re-appraisal. 

Further reading

David Cannadine, Jenny Keating, and Nicola Sheldon, The right kind of history: teaching the past in twentieth-century England (Basingstoke; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Stephen Heathorn, For Home, Country, and Race: Constructing Gender, Class, and Englishness in the Elementary School, 1880-1914 (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2000).

Billie Melman, The culture of history: English uses of the past, 1800-1953 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Helen McCarthy, The British people and the League of Nations: democracy, citizenship and internationalism c. 1918-45 (Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 2011).



About Laura Carter

Laura is a PhD student at Cambridge University, working with Professor Peter Mandler. She has previously worked on how the idea of ‘modern’ mass education developed in Britain from the 1920s through to the secondary modern school after 1944. Her current research focuses on the preservation, presentation, and commodification of the ‘everyday’ past in British culture in the early to mid twentieth century.

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