When Billy Elliot met E.D. Hirsch


Could KS3 embrace the 1980s to close the cultural literacy pits?

Last week I went to see a performance of the musical Billy Elliot by the students at the school where I am currently training. It was a fantastic show with acting, singing and dancing talent that made me fiercely envious. The story also did a fantastic job of evoking the spirit of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike. The anger, the pain, the solidarity. In fact the song ‘Solidarity’ with its face off between two united, aggressive (and occasionally pirouetting) lines of police and miners brought to my mind everything from Pete Seeger to the 2014 film Pride. It was the sort of history that had me fully engaged and invested.

However, the next morning when I was eagerly chatting about the show with members of my form group who starred, none of them seemed to be able to appreciate the importance of this conflict. References to Margaret Thatcher and the concept of solidarity was as alien to them as Sergei Diaghilev (presumably) was to Arthur Scargill.

What was it that allowed me to engage more in a show I had never seen before than those who had lived and breathed it for the last four months of their lives? The fact that most of these students had given up history after KS3 and never studied Britain after 1945 had something to do with it…

Striking miners facing line of police

Back when I did my History A Level five years ago, I was taught a synoptic course entitled ‘The Development of Democracy in Britain: 1868-1997’. At the time I remember feeling its value but not yet having the language with which to express it. I would praise the fact that it was effectively ‘catching you up’, acting as a ‘previously on…’ to current affairs. I knew it was allowing me to understand what was happening in the news with greater ease.

The concepts we discussed in the course (the role of the media, economic inequality, political populism etc.) are central to our current political debates and by encountering them in previous guises, this course gave me the ammunition with which to engage with them now. It also gave me a level of interest and political engagement which I had not had before. I now realise I was being armed with a solid set of reference points with which I could engage in public discourse. What I once described as ‘catching you up’ was actually a building of the cultural literacy described by E.D. Hirsch. The course had provided a scaffold of knowledge upon which I could drape my new encounters with political issues. My teacher’s insistence that everyone in the class would be able to get the satire in Spitting Image no longer seems as pointless as it once did.

This course had given me set of cultural reference points that my form group did not have, indeed I would not have had at their age. It points to a common gap in compulsory history education at Key Stage 3 that I feel needs to be filled: the 1980s.

Too many KS3 history curricula (the limit of compulsory history education in Britain) stop at 1945. They cover the Second World War and the Holocaust and then come to a stop. This is even more common in schools with two-year KS3s. I find this slightly alarming. If a whole set of students leave school with the most recent event they studied in history being the Second World War, their conception of a) the nature of modern Britain and b) current international tensions, will be highly skewed.

Britain in 1945 was quite a different place to what we recognise today. Britain was still one of the most powerful countries in the world. It still had direct control over a vast empire, including India. Homosexuality was a criminal offence. Capital punishment was in practice. The Windrush had not yet arrived. For too many students there is a huge disconnect between the country in which they live and the country they study in history. They are fundamentally different places and most students would struggle to tell you how one became the other.

This common gap in the KS3 curriculum is one of the most prominent examples of ‘event-space’ in students’ historical thinking. By having a set of historical episodes in their minds as independent ‘events’ punctuating long periods of ‘event-space’ students get an incomplete sense of the nature of history. However in this case, where the event-space separates their knowledge of history from the present, it creates a sense of deep disconnect with the past and the belief that history is irrelevant to their own lives.

KS3 should not come screeching to a halt at 1945 purely on the assumption that students will study the Cold War and/or postwar Britain in KS4. For those that don’t continue history at school, this is doing them a disservice.

If more KS3 curricula drove beyond 1945, into the conflict points of the 1980s, students would be presented with a British and international context with far greater relevance to current debates. This knowledge can create for students a basis from which they can engage with the big questions of today. The 1980s is an ideal crux point for so many of the issues facing us today. On the role of the media in political discourse, on the allegations of Kremlin interference in the American election, on the sense of a north-south divide and economic inequality, on the fight for LGBT rights, on the political identity of the Labour party and on Britain’s relationship with the European Union. The 1980s has points of reference which students can use to understand the present.

This by no means solves the problem of ‘event-space’ in students minds. The gap between the 1980s and today remains stark. Nor am I suggesting that somehow studying the 1980s will automatically foster engagement with all Year 8s in current events. That is obviously ridiculous. Furthermore, by adding another enquiry at the end of KS3, it is likely something else would have to give way. In a curriculum pushed for time and space there are not many topics I would easily volunteer for redundancy.

However, maybe, when asked to swear about Maggie bleedn’ Thatcher in their next school play – students will understand the point, and that would make me smile.

National Identity in Marble and Bronze

Why a city’s choice of statue can reveal so much about national identity.

National identity is a curious, and fundamentally artificial, construct. According to Benedict Anderson the nation is nothing more than an ‘imagined community’ built upon the conceit that no one in a nation can know everyone else within it yet they still irrationally perceive the nation as a unified community. This idea of the nation can be seen in the ways nations choose to portray their own history. By looking at who nations immortalise in marble and bronze in city centres, we can see how national identity has developed in different regions. At odds are the intangible, cultural form of identity and the more physical, often militaristic versions.

Whilst travelling through Eastern Europe in the summer of 2015, I noticed something interesting about how in particular Slavic countries have chosen to represent their national history. In the centre of the main square of Krakow, surrounded by overpriced restaurants, an impressive cathedral, and eager leafleteers stands a huge monument to Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855). This was a figure completely unfamiliar to me but that in itself was not unsurprising. Despite my Polish ancestry, I would struggle with anything but the broadest sweeps of Polish history. However it turned out Mickiewicz was not the general or politician one might expect to find commemorated in a major European city, but a poet.

Mickiewicz is an artist rarely studied in Britain, but of great national significance to Poland as a Romantic Poet of the nineteenth century. Perhaps Mickiewicz’s most famed work is the epic poem ‘Pan Tadeusz’. The poem takes place in 1811, documenting a turning point in Polish history where the region had been partitioned between Russian, Prussian, and Austrian armed forces and thus erased from the political map of Europe. Of such national importance is Mickiewicz’s poem that it is compulsory reading for all schoolchildren.

krakow adam
Statue of Adam Mickiewicz, Krakow
Adam Mickiewicz

Key to Anderson’s understanding of the nation is  the development of ‘print capitalism’, the dominance of a single localised vernacular in print media that, in the early modern period, replaced Latin as the language of choice. The uniformity of a single language spoken by all citizens, not just the intellectual elite, served to foster the idea of the imagined community – the nation.

For Poland, Mickiewicz’s epic poem written in Polish represented this shift and thus built the foundations upon which a fledgling nation-state could be built. This is why his statue is the most prominent in Krakow, and why across Eastern Europe tourists are presented with similar representations of national history.

For example, in the central square of Ljubljana, the most prominent monument is to nineteenth century Slovenian poet France Prešeren who enjoys a similar position in the Slovenian national psyche as Mickiewicz to the Polish.

In a similar vein the largest statue in Split, Croatia is of the tenth century bishop Grgur Ninski. Whilst representing a very different figure to Mickiewicz or Preseren, Ninski pioneered church services in the Croation language over Latin and therefore made similar advances in the development of a singular national print language, if eight centuries prior to the romantic poets.

Poland, Slovenia, Croatia and many other Eastern European nations have not been independent politically for millennia. Instead they have been variously conquered, divided or occupied by neighbouring European powers. As such, these national identities did not manifest in tangible forms such as political or military success. Rather identity was confined to language and thus it is the poets who are venerated for keeping alive the idea of the nation. By continuing to write in the Polish language, Mickiewicz ensured the idea of Poland could survive and outlast the occupying forces.

When you compare these forms of national commemoration to other European nations that have existed uninterrupted for over a thousands years, such as France, Russia, and England, there is a stark contrast. In the most important public squares and spaces in London it is not poets but military commanders that are commemorated. The victor of Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson, rules atop a fifty-metre-high column over Trafalgar Square. The Duke of Wellington parades outside the Stock Exchange. Oliver Cromwell stands resolute defending the Parliament he once led through Civil War.

Britain’s great romantic poets are not commemorated in nearly the same pomp. Even Shakespeare is relegated to a modest memorial in Leicester Square. It is the uninterrupted nature of Britain (and previously England) as a political entity that ensures that national identity has manifested in tangible, political forms, not the cultural realm.
This reality of public history is a reality of our present. Is it not the case that Britain attempts to cling to it’s long-gone global power in increasingly desperate displays? After all why in the twenty-first century does a tiny island in the North Atlantic rub shoulders with America, China and Russia at the Security Council? Britain imagines it’s national identity as one of continuing tangible power. A history built on statesmen and generals. Perhaps it would be of enormous benefit not only to our national psyche but also future generations if greater focus was instead placed upon Shelley, Milton, and Chaucer in both our public spaces, collective consciousness and the history classroom.
Each imagined community is shaped by its citizens and how they chose to represent themselves throughout history. Nations that have survived centuries of invasions through a resilience of language are, to me, all the richer for it and can look upon their heroes in marble and bronze with pride. Literary giants in a medium of blood-stained generals and repressive kings.