Opinion: Why education secretary Michael Gove is in the wrong
13:17 10 January 2014
It seems an unnecessary and pathetic row has erupted between a government minister and an archaeological comedian over how we should portray the First World War within the education system.
The battleground between education secretary Michael Gove and Time Team presenter Sir Tony Robinson (of course better known as Baldrick) is the final series of Blackadder, set in the 1914-18 trenches of France.
It is a sensitive issue, undoubtedly, with the centenary of the outbreak of the conflict falling later this year.
However, to start squabbling over the use of Blackadder in schools is unseemly.
Mr Gove suggested that “left-wing academics” were using Blackadder to “feed myths” about the First World War. Sir Tony – who is also a former member of Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee – firmly rejected the idea and accused the education secretary of “slagging off teachers”.
While Mr Gove may not have intended to criticise teachers in this way, he is in the wrong here.
If the Blackadder portrayal of the First World War is not permissible, because it depicts Britain’s military leaders as cowards and buffoons, where does that leave the writing of Siegfried Sassoon or the other war poets?
And as Sir Tony adds, those teachers who may use Blackadder as a teaching tool will also be those most likely to take their students to Flanders or read the poems of Wilfred Owen to them.
It may just be that Blackadder unlocks an interest in the First World War for pupils, and if it shows that it can inspire comedy as well as great poetry and literature – whether you agree with its sentiment or not – that surely has to be a positive.
I never felt Blackadder was disrespectful to the millions who were killed or maimed in the First World War and I don’t recall any such reaction when it was first aired in the late 1980s. I do not think for one moment either, that it gives a portrayal of the conflict that can’t easily be challenged or balanced elsewhere. Today, I am thankful I was taught about the First World War at school and how it impacted on the modern world through the Russian Revolution, the rise of Communism, the Second World War, the Cold War and the history of the Middle East.
By the time I completed my studies, I had a broad overview of why the world in which I lived was the way it was. It set much of my life into context and helped me understand why some states reacted in certain ways, whether I agreed with them or not.
That interest had been triggered by an imaginative teacher who had presented history in a relevant and meaningful way with balance and context but allowed me to explore my own ideas as well.
Blackadder will not give pupils the definitive version of the First World War, no more than Hollywood does in its portrayal of conflict in the Second World War, Vietnam, the Gulf or other wars. But if it fires an interest to investigate further, then it will have proven an effective educational tool.
So, on this issue, perhaps Mr Gove should go forth...