Blackadder: not used as a historical source for First World War teaching

David Ronder, an academic at the University of Kent, and Peter Thompson, head of teaching and learning at Woodhouse College, North London, write:

The first shots have already been fired in an emerging kulturkampf over memory and the meaning of the First World War, a hundred years on from 1914. As co-authors of the textbook Past Simple (Garnet 2012), which uses British history to teach English, we believe we can offer some useful perspective to the debate – not least because between us we teach both British and overseas learners.  

Opening hostilities with an article in the Daily Mail at the beginning of the year, education secretary Michael Gove took aim at "myths" spread by "left-wing academics" such as Sir Richard Evans and TV sitcoms such as Blackadder. Rather than follow them in regarding the whole thing as a "misbegotten shambles" and denigrating British courage and patriotism, we should remember that it was "plainly a just war" to combat German aggression. The British soldiers who fought viewed it as a "noble cause" and were "conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order".

Even the generals, long excoriated as the "donkeys" who led those British fighting "lions", were now bathed in a sympathetic Govean light. Field Marshal Douglas Haig, traditionally viewed as a butcher or fool ("brilliant – to the top of his boots" in Lloyd George’s phrase), was in fact "a patriotic leader grappling honestly with the new complexities of industrial warfare".  And for Gove it is vitally important to "commemorate, and learn from, that conflict in the right way".

It is the propagandist intent implicit in this tell-tale little phrase that should alarm all educators. To suggest that there is one "right way" to commemorate and learn from as large and complex and now distant an event as the First World War is both simple-minded and – coming from an education secretary – mildly sinister. In prescribing what nationally edifying lessons we should learn from the war, Gove is, in our view, overstepping his bounds. Small wonder a Tory colleague urged him to "get back into his box". By any liberal educational principle, the teaching of history should never be a vehicle for instilling national pride, though that may be a by-product of historical study, but rather a means of informing learners about the past and equipping them with the critical tools for evaluating it appropriately on their own terms.

So much for Gove’s patriotic agenda: what of his specific claims? The first thing to note is that his classically Daily Mail notion of an unpatriotic conspiracy of left-wing historians bears little scrutiny. The key "lions led by donkeys" trope, for example, was popularised by the Tory politician and military historian Alan Clark in The Donkeys (1961), his scathing examination of the British generals’ conduct of the war. Equally trenchant in his critique of the generals is Tory-sympathising Max Hastings, former editor of both the Daily Telegraph and the Mail’s former stablemate, the Evening Standard, in his centenary-marking work Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914. And probably the most important revisionist work of recent times is The Pity of War (1998), in which one-time Thatcherite and now US Republican-supporting historian Niall Ferguson argues that it was wrong for Britain to go to war in 1914.

As for the one plausibly left-leaning historian in the picture, Professor Richard J Evans, BBC heavyweight Jeremy Paxman has accused Gove of "wilfully misquoting" him and thus misrepresenting his position on the war. But one thing Evans did point out was that our principal ally in 1914 was Tsarist Russia, which was neither western, nor liberal – nor, given its fairly rapid descent into revolutionary chaos, much of an order. Indeed Germany, where every adult man had the right to vote in 1914, was arguably more representative of the western liberal order than Britain, where full adult male suffrage did not arrive until 1918 (and women would have to wait another decade).

It is not altogether clear whether Gove objects to Blackadder primarily when used as a teaching tool or in its wider cultural impact. If the latter, the question needs to be asked whether a half-hour sitcom first broadcast 25 years ago can really have such a malign effect on perceptions of the conflict and whether Gove isn’t demonstrating a humourlessness and lack of perspective not shared by the millions who enjoyed the series and took it exactly for what it was: a piece of comic invention. But if he thinks that teachers use it in the classroom to peddle some unpatriotic left-wing version of history, he is being both ignorant and professionally insulting. Some do use Blackadder when teaching the First World War, but never as an actual historical source. It is a means of stimulating interest and generating discussion, perhaps an amusing short-cut into or a bit of light relief from a grim and almost overwhelming subject. Other, authoritative sources – text books, first-hand accounts, the war poets – also inevitably feature in lessons, along with visits to museums or war cemeteries.

If patriotically-themed history is not acceptable for British learners, then it is even less so for the non-native learners our book Past Simple was primarily designed for. It is not polite – or educational, or even particularly British – to wave the flag in people’s faces. We want our readers to find British history interesting and to gain a deeper understanding of our society to inform their language learning. When it came to the First World War, we decided to title our chapter "Lions Led by Donkeys": it is an arresting image, and gave us the opportunity to create a discussion exercise involving comparisons of what animals symbolise in different cultures. Were we being unpatriotic reprobates worthy of the education secretary’s scorn? Do we present a blinkered, left-wing view of the war? Of course not. We did what any good teacher would do with such a title, and put a question mark after it.

But when we reflect on education in this country, on our hard-working, broad-minded and imaginative colleagues striving to inspire and educate within the state system, the metaphor returns to us without a question mark. The teachers are the lions. The man at the top is a something of a donkey.

David Ronder is an English for Academic Purposes tutor at the University of Kent and Peter Thompson is head of teaching and learning at Woodhouse College, North London. Their book Past Simple can be bought here.