Progress Report; or, Some Thoughts Delivered in the Vague Direction of Michael Gove

When I do outreach workshops with teenagers, trying to get them excited about coming to university (and maybe even studying history!) I make myself out to be a bit like Indiana Jones. To the 15-year-olds from inner-city London or rural North Wales who come to visit Oxford on a programme that seeks to demystify the supposedly (or maybe actually) posh university and give them the same sort of university-application resources that students from independent schools get, I’m an eccentric, renegade American on an adventure who dives headfirst into archives and comes up for air ready to wave manuscripts in their faces and lecture them about Victorian women’s menstrual cycles. This is, naturally, exactly the sort of persona one wants to cultivate in stints as a schoolteacher, but it sure obscures the dull reality of the days spent in the library trying day after day to pull together the motivation to write master’s essays on the history of political thought (“this needs to be less about sex and more about political theory,” my supervisor said upon reading a draft), all the while thinking to myself that at least if I stay in Britain for my doctorate, I’ll never have to write another term paper. It’s been a long term.

But it’s nearly over, it’s staying light ever later, and doing these outreach sessions helps to remind me of the big picture of what the hell I’m doing here aside from what seems like just another year of term papers. After all, my funding is grounded in the idea of furthering mutual understanding between Britons and Americans, and I received that funding, I presume, in part because I spent 25 minutes in a conference room in Los Angeles telling a panel of interviewers how much I believed in universities and cared about what’s happening these days in the politics surrounding British education at the secondary and higher levels. Happily, this happens to be true, and actually having the opportunity to talk regularly with ordinary schoolkids—the ones I work with come specifically from schools who do not have a history of sending students to Russell Group universities—is an extremely effective way of putting what the newspapers have to say about British education, and the changes it has undergone since the ascent of the coalition government and Education Secretary Michael Gove, into perspective.

This became particularly apparent to me today. My lesson is centered on a handout including some excerpts from a primary source I’m particularly interested in at the moment, the diaries/daybooks of a Victorian classicist called Arthur Sidgwick. Sidgwick faithfully records everything—and I mean everything—that happens to him in his daily life, but the part that I’m most focused on—and that I discuss with the kids—is the story of his courtship, engagement, marriage and children. We look (or try to look) at the way he discusses getting to know and falling in love with his wife (after the first session, I ditched the section where he falls in love with a student—call me a whitewasher of the queer experience in history if you like, but that was just too complicated to take on in an hour with school groups), and what that can or can’t tell us about love, desire, and relationships in Britain c. 1850-1914. I make clear to the kids that this is my actual research question at the moment, that I don’t know the answers to the questions I’m asking them, and just see what happens and hope that it gets them excited.

When it doesn’t, however (like today), I veer off into more general conversation. Today, mindful of Michael Gove’s proposal to re-orient history education around narrative, I asked them what they thought about the fact that their history education has been entirely in isolated, thematic chunks (for instance, as one girl said she was doing this year, the American West and the history of medicine). To a student, they said they couldn’t imagine that a chronological approach would seem as fun or as accessible—they looked very bored indeed when I said that I had done all of American history from the Pilgrims to the present three times over in school! One boy said he felt that the anti-chronological approach had led him to make unexpected connections across different time periods, and that narrative would give you set answers about how one thing led to another and not allow you to draw your own conclusions. It was an interesting statement, and one that if I were a more experienced teacher I might have picked up and run with: what about things that are actually different in the past, not the same? Isn’t it important to know how different social or cultural contexts came about, and to assess whether change over the time is the same thing as progress or regress over time? Admittedly, these weren’t concepts that I truly started to grapple with until I started taking history classes in college, but the reason that my college classes—particularly those in American history—got me so excited was because they upended my preconceived, progressive narrative of American history. Getting that narrative drilled into me from a young age gave me a base of general knowledge that my college teachers were able to query and fill in, particularly about complicated topics such as gender, race and sexuality that often defy our attempts to make them into progressive narratives.

Anyway. Wary of digressing like that in my class, I returned the discussion back to Sidgwick’s diaries. A girl asked if Sidgwick’s obsessive recording of the minute details of his life was typical or representative, and by way of comparison I brought up the diaries of the prime minister W.E. Gladstone. Not one of my twenty students had ever heard of him at all. While I was explaining him and comparing his diaries to Sidgwick’s, I tried to figure out of this was worrisome or even remarkable. How many US Civil War-era politicians could I name, for instance? Certainly not as many as I could abolitionists, which is no doubt a result of historians’ and history teachers’ increasing acknowledgement over the past decades that history is made as much by people outside the corridors of power as within them. A central criticism of the new National Curriculum for history has been that it restores focus to dead white men that had been removed by a Labour curriculum that sought to emphasize the everyday experiences of ordinary people, and the contributions of minority and women figures to history. Gladstone and Disraeli get their own bullet point, however, in the new curriculum, and while I do hope that means that a new generation of schoolchildren will have the opportunity to titter at Gladstone’s “reform” of prostitutes, I still don’t know whether I think that matters. After all, just like David Cameron and Ed Milliband, Gladstone went to Oxford; like Nick Clegg, Arthur Sidgwick went to Cambridge. What it says about modern Britain that twenty kids from “nontraditional” university backgrounds have come up to Oxford for an open day attempting to demystify elite universities and encourage them to apply, only to sit in a fancy classroom in a sixteenth-century college and have an American grad student teach them their own country’s fairly recent history, menstrual cycles and all, is a question far above my pay grade, but it’s certainly one that I feel duty-bound to keep thinking about.

Either that, or it’s just that it beats writing about utilitarianism.

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