When the Normans conquered England back in 1066 the leading members of Saxon society, anyone of learning and influence, was killed, and history was rewritten. Or perhaps written would be the more apposite word since Saxon England had been an oral society, stories had been handed down by word of mouth, not ink on page. Centuries of culture were dismissed and for even more centuries that period was called the Dark Ages; a time of an inward-looking, backward society. The Normans weren’t stupid. They knew how to use propaganda. They weren’t going to go about praising the previous administration, reminding people that women had had more rights, that craftsmen thrived, that the class system was a Norman import.
Only discoveries like Sutton Hoo and more recently the Staffordshire Hoard have begun to reveal the extent of all the Norman disinformation and misinformation.
It’s a big lesson in why we shouldn’t let governments control what we learn. Since the introduction of a National Curriculum in the UK successive governments have tinkered about with what children should learn in schools. In the last few weeks the current minister for education, one Michael Gove, has been outlining what he wants children to be learning about in history lessons. It made me think about the Normans a lot. Gove hasn’t killed off historians who disagree with his views, but he so obviously disdains them, and his colleagues in the Department of Education, a place he dismisses as the Blob.
He wants children to learn his idea of Britain, his top ten of important figures in British history, his top ten of British achievements. To my mind this is not history teaching, but indoctrination of a dangerous kind. Simon Schama has described the proposed curriculum as “1066 and All That, without the jokes.”
History teaching should be a rigorous examination of facts and evidence, not rote learning of dates and uncritical regurgitation of expurgated biographies and biased accounts. It is a subject too important to leave to governments. History is our narrative; the story of who we are and where we have come from, warts and all.