Elitism, especially in education, is almost universally acknowledged today to be a Bad Thing, to the extent that even those who actually believe in it feel called upon to explain that they mean a kind of meritocracy (in opposition to socialistic leveling) in which unavoidable natural differences in intellectual ability and talent are recognised and properly supported, rather than the bad sort of elitism that just protects the privileges of the already privileged. This being the case, it’s scarcely surprising that accusations and imputations of ‘elitism’ have become a conventional means of discrediting one’s opponents in any education- or culture-related debate; the only interesting thing is the particular grounds named or implied as justification for slapping on such a label. Looking back on the whole RIII thing from the perspective of a week and a half, one of the more striking aspects of the discussion – above all in the responses to critical comments made by myself and others – was the prevalence of the term ‘elitism’, even more than accusations of jealousy and petty-mindedness. Further, the same ideas surfaced in discussions of the proposals for a revised National Curriculum for History; again, not in the initial criticisms, but in the response to the criticisms, exemplified by Niall Ferguson’s piece in the Guardian: Why Michael Gove Is Right (And Not Just Because I’m One Of His Chosen Gurus).
What are the views being denounced as elitist? In both cases, the idea that history, and hence history-teaching, shouldn’t just be about the heroic deeds of a few Great Men, and hence on the one hand it’s a bit odd that there should be so much fuss about finding the bones of a medieval king, and on the other hand it’s disturbing that the National Curriculum is apparently being written to concentrate more on the Great Men and less on everything else. Put in those terms, it’s a struggle to see how the term ‘elitism’ is appropriate at all. My objection to the Kings’n’Battles approach to history is precisely that it ignores the vast mass of the population, not to mention broader social and economic movements, in favour of a Hegelian view of history as being shaped by a few Men of Destiny who are very definitely Superior To Us Plebs.
[Indeed, at the risk of annoying even people who agreed with me the first time round, I have to say that I actually find the debate about whether or not Mary Seacole should be included to be a sign that half the battle has already been lost; okay, if we’re going to have a history focused on individuals then it’s certainly good to emphasise that it wasn’t always all about white aristocratic men, but it still smacks of tokenism, offering a ‘politically correct’ alibi for a history that is actually already thoroughly anti-popular. I don’t know if conservatives get worked up about Seacole because they’re too stupid to notice that they’ve actually won, or because it serves as a wonderful means of distracting their opponents from the real issues.]
Meanwhile, opponents of the proposed reforms like Richard Evans insist on the importance of teaching the skills of historical analysis and understanding, which can be deployed by anyone to engage with the world however they wish, against the rote learning of isolated facts that have nothing to do with the lives of most children and show substantial signs of being selected for ideological reasons. Arguing for the development of understanding and critical skills, seeking to engage children’s imaginations and enthusiasm rather than just pumping a selection of information into them: how exactly is that an elitist position?
Well, in the first place it’s presented as elitist by virtue of the professional identity of its proponents. If you’re a professional academic, clearly you are by definition better educated than the mass of the population, hence part of an elite, and so can justifiably be ignored because your views are automatically tainted. Even worse if you’re at Oxbridge; worse still if you’ve made it to a senior position, such as Regius Professor of History. (Less ancient and prestigious universities can, at least sometimes, be presented as heroic popular champions if they are ranged against the evil empire of the Russell Group, but it won’t last; in this rhetorical tradition, all universities and academics are suspected of being too clever by half). All the traditional claims of expertise and authority are turned against their owners; whereas once the fact that someone has risen to be Regius Professor of History in one of the world’s leading universities would generally be taken as grounds for taking his views seriously, now it instantly raises questions about whether that person is sufficiently authentic, unstuffy and subversive to rise above the disadvantages of their academic status.
One might wonder exactly how the Oxford-educated Niall Ferguson, holder of prestigious academic positions in Harvard, Oxford and Stanford, has innoculated himself against the taint of elitism, unless it’s simply that he’s managed heroically to avoid being forced into a Regius Chair. He doesn’t, of course, ever say explicitly that his targets are discredited by their professional status, nor does he actually deny his own, but the implication is unmistakable, as he constructs his own persona in the way that he presents theirs.
Michael Gove’s new national curriculum is out, and already the big guns of Oxbridge are blasting the changes it proposes to the way English kids are taught history.
From Cambridge no less a personage than Richard Evans, the Regius Professor of History, condemned Gove’s attempt…
The language is deliberately unacademic (“the big guns…are blasting… English kids…”) and mocking; clearly the writer is not one of these Oxbridge personages who think so much of themselves. There’s no need to develop an argument; the rhetoric is sufficient to establish the impression of elitism.
This generalised contempt for successful academics draws from – and deliberately taps into – a long tradition of suspicion that the educated classes in top universities (or the vast majority of them) firmly identify with the ruling elite against ordinary people, or are at best simply utterly removed from everyday life, and so can’t be trusted. It is of course a suspicion with a great deal of historical evidence to back it up, and so it’s utterly understandable (albeit a bit depressing after a while) that it should appear so frequently in anonymous comments on blogs. It’s less edifying to see it being co-opted by someone who looks remarkably like another recipient and defender of privilege, in order to discredit his fellows, or more importantly their arguments.
There is a further, even more cunning rhetorical move: those arguments are themselves labelled elitist, which then reinforces the impression of the elitism of their proponents. The fact that the views of these professional historians about the past and how to study it differ from the traditional narrative of kings and battles is not taken as grounds for questioning the traditional narrative, but as evidence of the elitist, out-of-touch sympathies of the professionals. It is presented as a deliberate rejection of popular interest in the past, a willful obscurity and arrogance; anyone who doesn’t celebrate the discovery of Richard’s bones can only be a pretentious snob, and their explanations for their lack of enthusiasm carry no force. A wish to concentrate on historical and critical methods rather than learning Important Facts about the past is a thoroughly elitist proposal, since it rejects the widespread popular view that history is all about facts about the past. It’s then only a short step to the notion that history should only teach us what we already know and/or what makes us feel comfortable and proud to be British – how dare those historians be all negative and critical? – and that historical research should be driven entirely by the interests of the public.
But of course they aren’t really the interests of ‘the public’, however much it suits people like Gove and Ferguson to believe that they are; rather, they are the interests of those members of the public who are already very interested in history. There is clearly an appetite amongst a certain sector of the population for lots of biographies of kings, queens and miscellaneous Great People; there’s an appetite in another sector (perhaps not overlapping very much with the previous one) for lots of battles and generals; in a third sector, for histories of the Nazis. It’s clearly an illegitimate logical leap to conclude that this is therefore what everyone wants, including the people who don’t buy history books or watch history programmes. In practice, though, that’s what happens; publishers and television producers naturally seek to cater to the people who will actually consume their products – which is fine, if occasionally depressing for those of use who like other kinds of history – but that then creates the conception of what History is all about in the minds of some of the people who determine school curricula; that shapes the curriculum of the future, which generates a small group of people who love it and so want more, a very small group who love history but decide to pursue another kind, and a rather larger group who are more or less turned off and steer clear of history altogether. And so we go round again…
Look, some of my best friends love biographies of medieval monarchs (and have given me a very hard time over the last week). I’m all for the principle of live and let live, within reason – but that isn’t reason for me to bite my tongue, rather than saying that I do actually think that concentrating solely on traditional kings, battles and Great Men history gives a misleading, thoroughly elitist and pernicious idea of the past that probably alienates at least as many people as it attracts. I was expecting a great many accusations of Marxism, anti-Britishness and the like; the idea that a commitment to the idea of popular history (in the sense of a people’s history) should instead be denounced as ‘elitist’ struck me as rather odd, to say the least, but Ferguson’s defence of Gove – which likewise tends at times towards a “this is what the people like so we must give it to them” position – offers a very similar use of the term ‘elitism’ to undermine opposition to a thoroughly traditional, establishment-orientated conception of the past.
Opposition to prevalent opinions and popular myths from a critical, well-informed perspective is often the duty of the true historian – I’m thinking of course of Thucydides and his critique of the Athenian stories about the Tyrannicides – and it would be reasonable to describe that as in one sense an ‘elitist’ position, a belief that some people do actually have better knowledge and understanding than others. The new anti-elitism (sic) wishes instead to promote the wisdom of the crowd; ‘the people’ (however defined and identified) will have a better understanding of their own past and how it should be taught than any self-styled ‘experts’, and so any difference of opinion between ‘the people’ and the academic historians can only be the fault of the latter’s elitism and ivory-tower isolation. The fact that ‘the people’ in this case is scarcely representative of the actual population at large, and is largely the creation of a few who have the brass neck to claim to speak for them, goes unnoticed in the desperate struggle to avoid appearing elitist or stuck up. And so the kids get a really bum deal…