J D Davies

The Good Old Days

I don’t often produce two blogs in a week, let alone in a day, but I couldn’t let this one pass. Apropos of the current spat about History teaching between Michael Gove and, well, pretty well everybody else, really – principally about World War I, but more generally about whether or not History in schools should be about ‘our national story’ (sic) – I recently came across the following piece which suggests that this sort of debate is as old as the hills. This is the beginning of an article entitled ‘The Vital Importance of Our Naval and Military History’, published in The Navy and Army Illustrated for 15 October 1897. It was written by T Miller Maguire, esq., LL.D., of the Inns of Court Rifle Volunteers, who was a prolific writer on military and strategic matters. But most importantly, it suggests that as far as at least some were concerned, not all was rosy in schools even in the 1890s – surely, one might think, a Goveian golden age of History teaching when pupils learned nothing but lists of dates and tales of British triumph…or as Sir Henry Newbolt called it in his poem ‘Ionicus’, ‘the strength and splendour of England’s War’.

(Hmm, strange that Newbolt doesn’t get much of an outing in schools these days. Wonder why that should be…?)

There might be some excuse for Frenchmen, Russians, or Germans, who, absorbed in business, pleasure, or metaphysics, forgot to study the records of their Fatherland. But they do nothing of the kind; on the contrary, all of them are enthusiastic enquirers into the annals of their past history, which is an obligatory subject in every public school, from the Adour to the Neva. Indifference to national history is synonymous with sordid ignorance, both in continental Europe and in the United States…

Strange to say, the history of our most magnificent Empire is a sealed book to all classes of our peoples, and yet we have no excuses such as might pass among self-contained nations that can live on their own products, if they were stupid enough to be indifferent to the only true guide for statesmen and voters. With Frenchmen and Germans, empire, sea power, a great navy, numerous colonies, subject lands in Asia and Africa, are mere incidents of the national life, things more or less desirable, but not vital. With us, foreign trade, command of the sea, colonial empire, are vital; they are the breath of our nostrils. Without them we perish. We live on the world at large, not on the produce of our little isles. To every Briton, therefore, his national history, how we won his empire, how to retain it, the origin of our naval power, its present requirements, how our soldiers acquired India, how India may be lost, the distinction between our military conditions and those of our neighbours, the nature and needs of combined naval and military expeditions, the cultivation of patriotic sentiments, and a readiness for self-sacrifice among the rising generation, are as absolutely indispensable as our daily bread. Each citizen should feel that the efficiency of our army and navy comes home to his ‘business and bosom’ with as much force as how to secure a comfortable living wage, or how to insure his life, his furniture, and his house.

Schoolmasters who forget to teach British history to their pupils are, beyond doubt, a disgrace to their profession and a danger to their nation, and a civilian who is not fairly ‘well up’ in our modern military records is quite unworthy of a place in any public body, and unfit to vote on any great political issue.

It may be safely laid down that if our so-called educated classes only knew as much modern history as is contained in the French textbook ‘Histoire Contemporaine’, by Maréchal, not one tenth of the folly about Armenia, Crete and the Eastern Question, which has recently rendered political platforms ridiculous, could have been conceived or uttered. If our democracy be not educated – and without history, which ‘makes men wise’, there is no education worthy of the name – the results to our state in any serious crisis may be disastrous. 

So the vitriol currently flying between the various protagonists in the World War One / History teaching debates is distinctly tame compared with the language used over a hundred years ago, when Miller Maguire effectively accused unpatriotic teachers of treason; while the oft-heard lament that most modern voters and politicians are thoroughly ignorant about defence and foreign policy, but still feel qualified to spout vast amounts of rubbish about such matters, has a very long history. Ah, Twitter, if only you’d been around in Miller Maguire’s day! #easternquestion #traitorteachers #businessandbosom