Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Heads-up sceptics

How do you fancy getting paid to brainwash our nation's youth? Oh, sorry... Did I say "brainwash our nation's youth"? I meant, erm...

"run an educational project about the EU. This includes a nationwide programme of sceptical talks for sixth-formers, a sixth-form conference in March 2006 and a series of balanced fact sheets about EU policies and institutions."
"Our speakers come from across the political spectrum, and include parliamentarians from Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP, as well as top business people, journalists and political campaigners. All are sceptical about the Constitution for Europe or the euro; some would like to reform the EU from within; and some think that Britain would be better off outside the Union." (emphasis mine)
Then again, this is a post with the same thinktank that is seriously trying to promote Our Island Story as a proper history book, providing copies to as many primary schools as they can. Aside from the fact that it was written a century ago and so maintains a somewhat outdated late Victorian / Imperialist paternalist attitude (not meant in any kind of politically ideological way) and a doggedly whiggish, teleological approach to history (with a vague idea that it was Britain's - or rather, England's - fate to forever advance to become the most powerful nation in the world), it is also simply not a work of history, as the sample chapter makes abundantly clear.

Our Island Story is little more than a heavily fictionalised version of a particular interpretation of British history which has now been rejected by pretty much every major historian going as at best overly simplistic, at worst outright wrong. To wit:
"They stood beside the bed, hardly daring to look at the two pretty children in case the sight might soften even their hard hearts, and they would be unable to do the cruel deed. Then they seized the clothes and the pillows and pressed them over the faces of the little boys. They could not scream, they could not breathe. Soon they lay still, smothered in their sleep."
This would tend to give the impression that "the Princes in the Tower" were definitely murdered, and that this was witnessed/recorded to the extent that it was even known that they were smothered in their sleep. The truth? Nobody knows what happened to them. At all. There is no evidence that they were murdered beyond the fact that they seemed to vanish from the Tower of London after being locked up by Richard III, and most of the stories of their deaths originated in Tudor propagandists trying to justify Henry VII's usurpation of the throne. To present their murder as historical fact is to ignore five hundred years' worth of research.

So, if you fancy a job which involves peddling works of fiction to schoolchildren and convincing the poor kiddies that they're fact, while ignoring anything which could contradict the particular take on reality you've chosen to adopt, it looks like Civitas is the place for you. (I was going to apply myself, but my conscience simply couldn't take it - what's happened to genuinely rational EU-scepticism these days?)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

No offence, but fuck off, Nosemonkey. Given that the EU pumps millions of euro into selling their side of things - and to kids (you didn't see the stories last week about EU kids being taught the 'necessity' of the EU and its constitution?) - as well as funding professors of European history across Europe, and info centres for European bollocks, etc etc etc... then a small attempt to redress the balance (and not even that tendentious, as far as I can see) is WELL overdue.
Wrong call.
Sean T.

11/29/2005 12:33:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

But on the flip-side, we've got a press dominated by sceptic views - Mail, Express, Times, Telegraph, Sun, etc. etc. etc. EU-sceptic views are utterly dominant in the UK - this sort of thing is unnecessary.

As you know, on various aspects of the EU I'm rather sceptical still (to be otherwise takes naivety to strange new levels, as the thing is obviously flawed in many ways). If you don't believe me, check the last however many posts I've made on the EU, and you'll find that the majority are leaning towards critical.

When I first spotted the job ad, I did actually seriously consider applying, as I'd consider my take on the EU (these days) to be a fairly rational, balanced one - sceptical and critical where merited, but willing to give credit if and when it's due.

But after doing some checkin gup, what I objected to with this is the claim of "balance". It is highly unlikely, after a cursory glance at Civitas' website (I, like most of the population, rarely pay much attention to thinktanks, so usually forget which is which) that they could ever produce anything unbiased when it comes to the EU. Their attitude seems to lean towards that of the more rabid end of the Bruges Group's spectrum of opinion - if they are producing material about the EU for schools, I am 99% certain that the balance would be tilted in favour of sceptical opinions.

For what it's worth, I've also attacked propaganda campaigns coming from a pro-EU position. And, it may be noted, for the EU it's a no-win situation.

There is a need for better information about the EU all round - it's something I've been arguing on here for ages. But if such campaigns are backed by organisations with definite opinions one way or the other, they are highly unlikely to be balanced in any way, shape or form. That's the objection.

11/29/2005 12:58:00 pm  
Blogger Tim Worstall said...

Obviously, I’d do it in a shot, but for one thing. 22k to live in London? They’re kidding, right?

11/29/2005 03:57:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Try living in London on my salary... £22k would be EASY...

11/29/2005 04:03:00 pm  
Blogger Elaib said...

Funnily enough I know a bit about this project. Indeed the mention of UKIP in your second quotation only came about because I pointed it out to them, hitherto their hardened Euroscepticism neglected to include that party - which you might recall beat the Lib Dems in the last Euro elections, the ones that they are most serious about.
As Sean T points out, but less rudely, the EU machine grinds slow but it grinds very small. This is an independent think tank putting its money were its mouth is. Rather than the institutions putting our money where their mouths are, thus on my reckoning Civitas can take up some of the high ground.
It is true that you have denounced some of the EU propaganda overload, and well done on that, but it is never ending. I was in the European Parliament's Culture Committee today where I heard the MEPs talking about a report on the information budget, one fellow, I don't recall his name, said this,
"It is important that we increasing the information budget and that it is properly focussed. It must be targeted at our continent's youth, because they are more able to absorb our message of the benefits of European integration".
He was applauded.
On 'Our Island Story' you are being deliberately obtuse. Nobody at Civitas, and few outside would pretend that this book is an accurate portrayal of history. Far from it, what it is for, is to recount the national myth. It is as it says a story.
To banish the myth making of a nation's history is a dangerous thing to do. This book is about engaging young people with the romance of history, rather than the dry meaningless history that they are currently fed. Engage their minds with stories and then once they enjoy the past, then teach them about the darker duller and grimmer sides. To never expose them to the great glories and tragedies is to withhold from them something priceless, a sense of where they come from. Too often children tell me that history is boring. Well the history they are currently taught is boring. Oh and the ambition that Civitas has set itself is one copy of this book in each library, hardly brainwashing. The ambition of those people ion Committee is at least one lesson a week.

11/29/2005 09:15:00 pm  
Anonymous Phil Hunt said...

Is Civitas related to Vanitas by any chance?

11/29/2005 11:54:00 pm  
Anonymous hmmm said...

I don't see what value there is in myth-as-history-base. This is exactly propaganda, and targeted at children.

It is not as though History itself was such a well known and studied subject that adding "myth" into the mix would serve as simply additional flavouring.

If anything, the lessons of the XXth century are that

a) Nation-States Ain't So Hot

b) Thou Shall Not Forge Nor Forget History, Lest Thou Repeatest It.

So the “sense of where they come from” (like all the immigrants don't have a History of their own !) can just snuff it!

11/30/2005 07:25:00 am  
Blogger JohnJo said...

I remember reading a number of books at school in classical studies. Homer and all that. They read like history but were not, yet they were school sanctioned and excellent.

How are these school books different from Our Island Story (excluding style and depth) given that neither are introduced as real history?

11/30/2005 10:02:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sceptics might have most of the print media, but Europhiles dominate the broadcast media. Anyway, got any dates for these things? I'm still just about 'youth' and my brain certainly needs washing it's filthy

11/30/2005 10:36:00 am  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Elaib - agreed entirely on the whole "better they spend our money than theirs" thing. I just have an issue with ANY organisation with a definite political bias organising ANY kind of educational programme for schoolchildren.

Civitas explicitly state: "Henrietta Marshall’s message is of vital importance – and not just for the 7 to 11-year-olds the book is aimed at!" - in other words, it is the particular version of British history she sets out that Civitas want children to read. Equally, on the main page for the book it is referred to by Civitas merely as a "children's history" - at no point do Civitas themselves appear to acknowledge the factual inaccuracies. The word "myth" only appears in a review. They are NOT making explicit that this is not a work of history, but a fictionalisation of history.

I have no problem with using exciting narrative techniques to teach history to schoolchildren. But I have read this particular book - it is more than mere narrative history: it is peddling a particular form of nationalist right-wingery, using British history as a method of delivery. Pick another narrative history with mythical/fictional elements, and make clear that there ARE mythical/fictional elements, I'd have no issue with it at all.

As it is, I have a copy of the Civitas reprint right here, plus the accompanying press release, which reads as follows:

"Its reissue is timely - in a backlash against years of politically correct, homogenised, multi-cultural history, there is curretnly a move to reinforce British values, a quest for British identity, for the things that put the 'Great' in Britain... H.E. Marshall's marvellous book embodies those patriotic urges."

That is an acknowledgement of the political ideology behind the reissue, and the hope for some kind of political impact on the (child) readers.

Furthermore, while the press release acknowledge the mixture of "legend" with fact, the physical book itself at no point does this - the jacket stressing again and again how this is "the history of Britain", "history as a series of vivid stories", a quote from popular historian Antonia Fraser saying it inspired her, a quote from Andrew Roberts, and others all mentioning "history" but never myth. Inside, the book is subtitled "A History of Britain for Boys and Girls".

In other words, at no point in picking up the physical book - and at no stage within the text - is the fictional/mythical aspect highlighted. It is presented purely as history. Which it is not. And this is done for political reasons. Hence my objection.

Johnjo - Other than the fact that Homer's writings are the foundation of western literature and so worth studying in themselves, no one pretends they are anything other than myth with a bit of (possible) history thrown in. It's fairly obvious by the fact there are gods walking around the place... Our Island Story, however, is a far more subtle form of myth. Plus an important difference is that whereas Homer is in many cases our only source for some of the stories in his works, we have far more - often better - evidence for other interpretations of British history than those presented in Our Island Story.

Anonymous - erm... Dominate the broadcast media how, exactly? Sky News? ITV? Or is that just another tedious "the BBC's biased" thing, which is entirely subjective and supported only by very selective use of examples?

11/30/2005 11:20:00 am  

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