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Michael Gove Is Wrong: Mary Seacole Belongs on the School Curriculum

Posted: 07/01/2013 00:00

History is like property-based programming on Channel 4 - there's just too much of it for the human brain to absorb. All those Romans, and Celts, and Vikings, and prime ministers, and silly hats, and... well, it's just so hard to cram all of it into those tiny heads that children possess. How on Earth do you go about trying to teach history to a generation of Bambi-eyed blank slates; inquisitive but baffled kids, who possess no frame of reference for the vast lists of epochs and eras?

Michael Gove, the education secretary, has thought long and hard about this, and he has come up with a radical solution - time travel! Yes, if it's good enough for Dr Who, then why can't the government drag us all back to the halcyon days of yesteryear?

For Gove, at least according to a leaked report, it seems the answers to historical erudition lie in the traditional values of the 19th century, when men were men and women were corseted waifs struggling to breathe. The education secretary, who has apparently enlisted the help of the eminent professor Simon Schama for advice, seems to yearn for the glory days of empire, when history was taught not just to understand the past, but to mould the colonial administrators of the future.

Back then, a child's history curriculum was a conveyer belt of greatness - famous kings, heroic deeds, victorious battles, landmark events. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach, as Americans will point out. Indeed, viewers of Horrible Histories will know that we have our fair share of sketches about 'important' stuff, like the Industrial Revolution or Magna Carta. Furthermore, I also equally welcome more emphasis on historical linear narrative in teaching. I know many well-educated adults who would blink in terror if I asked them to place the Vikings on a timeline of world history, and it would be no bad thing for their kids to be able to correct them when they finally shrug their shoulders and guess that it's in the middle of the 14th century.

However, my concern is with the elevation of a white-washed, patrician, whiggish history of Progress with a capital P. Symbolic of this revolution in nationalised education is Gove's intention to not include Mary Seacole, the celebrated Jamaican who won acclaim in the Crimean War, in favour of Tory poster-boys like Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill. This worries, and confuses, me in equal measure.

Seacole's relatively recent rise to public notoriety has been crudely mocked by some right-wingers as political correctness at work in the classroom, and their case is bolstered by an unfortunate mythologizing of her scant medical accomplishments. Yet, here was a strong and independent woman of mixed-race, proud of her Scottish father, who spent years tending to the needs of the British regiments stationed in the West Indies. Furthermore, when Seacole heard of the suffering in the Crimea, she volunteered to travel thousands of miles to cater to those same troops she had formerly known. Having been denied the opportunity to nurse by government recruiters, and once more by a public charity, she then resolved to make the journey with her own capital. She sold up in Jamaica, went into business with a family friend, and built a wooden shack only a couple of miles from the blood-stained battlefield, from which she ran a canteen, supply store and improvised rehabilitation centre for unwell troops.

Here at her optimistically-titled British Hotel, she won the support and admiration of the soldiers, the locals, the top brass and William Russell, the world's first war correspondent, who wrote about her in gushing prose. Her aim was to provide comfort and care to the officers and men, and she would sometimes assist the injured on the battlefield itself, though she was not a trained nurse like the pioneering Florence Nightingale. When the war ended unexpectedly, Mary was left bankrupt - having naively invested in expensive stock - and took months to return to London, penniless. Yet, was she forgotten and neglected? Not in the least. An enormous benefit was thrown in her honour, attended by the highest echelons of royalty, and her memoirs went on to sell like hot cakes. She died in comfort, as a warmly-welcomed member of Britain's far-flung empire.

So, as well as being clearly not being a 'token black' for the political correctness brigade, I'd like to ask another question - at what point was Mary Seacole NOT an astonishingly courageous and compassionate exemplar of the Big Society? If this Coalition government really is trying to instil more civic pride and individual responsibility in the public, then there are few more compelling icons of altruistic endeavour than a woman who traipsed half-way around the world to support those fighting in her name. Was she a saint? Not at all, and she herself struggled at times to deflect racial taunts by trying to distance herself from those with darker skin, so she might better fit in. Her achievements as a medical practitioner have also been unjustifiably overstated; but her contribution to the Crimean campaign, and British history, were celebrated in her own lifetime by those who witnessed her in action, and should not be ignored in favour of the more traditional military feats of Lord Nelson.

Not every child can grow up to be a talismanic military commander, valiantly defending Britain's independence from a foreign invasion fleet; but informing kids that there were women - women of colour, no less - who were valued for their efforts and compassion is perhaps a more nurturing and progressive way to teach history to the majority of children, many of whom are increasingly of varied ethnic heritage, and half of whom are female. It is for these reasons that I also lament the proposed non-inclusion of Olaudah Equiano, the black slave who became a tireless campaigner for abolition. Our nation's history was not solely made by white people. Contrary to popular belief, there were blacks in Tudor England and Scotland, and by the 18th century they numbered more than 40,000. Many, such as Equiano, served bravely in the Royal Navy - home of Gove's preferred champion, Lord Nelson - and to forget their contribution would be a travesty of factual accuracy, as well as depriving generations of Black children of crucial positive role models from history. Social mobility, and multi-cultural inclusivity, begins with education - it would be dangerous to skew history in schools towards a legacy of uniform whiteness.

The Olympics may have revealed that modern Britain is a multi-cultural success story, but historians have long since said the same thing about our past. Michael Gove has my support if he wants to instil more narrative structure in historical education, but I'll fight him tooth and nail if he thinks neglecting to include black icons is anything other than a terrible idea.

 

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