Bias and Propaganda in A Level History

Henry Stewart's picture
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Those on the right regularly complain of left-wing bias in the school curriculum. For instance Jago Pearson wrote in the Telegraph in January: "Michael Gove is right. My time studying History at school and university was dominated by Left-wing thinking."

My son is currently taking his AS History and doesn't see much evidence of this. Indeed he has been shocked by the opinionated support for Margaret Thatcher in the standard Edexcel text for his course:

On the Falklands, it states "Margaret Thatcher rose magnificently to the challenge... It was vital that aggression be defeated for the sake of British self-respect and the rule of law in the world ... It was a simple case of right and wrong." (p160)

On Northern Ireland: "The Maze was in every respect a model prison, confirming to all aspects of the charter of human rights yet the IRA denounced is as a 'British death camp'. This was total nonsense, but the power of propaganda convinced many of the Catholic community in both the Irish Republic and within the Irish community in the USA that this was the scene of a modern atrocity  When Bobby Sands starved himself to death in May 1981, there was outrage, yet Thatcher was rightly unmoved. It was self-inflicted and totally unjustified by any objective criteria, but it took political courage to say so and accept other deaths. Once again there was a display of courage and determination on the prime minister's part but one that was not popular in liberal circles." (p172)

This follows from a section on Thatcher's first government titled "setting the country to rights" (p153) and comes before a section on how the defeat of the miners was "probably necessary to the modernisation of the economy." (p169).

None of this is in quotes or from other sources. It is all presented as fact. Are students expected to talk of Thatcher's "magnificent" response to the Falklands war? If this is the text book to work from, how will those who question her actions be marked?

Now all of the above are valid opinions about Thatcher's government but they are presented as fact. I'm not a History teacher and this is my first experience of A level history text books but I would ask if its appropriate for a text book to be biased in this way. I'd love to know what others think of this.

 

Source: Edexcel GCE History: British Political History 1945-90: Consensus and Conflict by Geoff Stewart

 
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Comments

Ali Messer's picture
Tue, 20/05/2014 - 21:14

Any History textbook is not simply a collection of facts but an interpretation of them. Any History teacher worth their salt should aim to ensure that their A level students understand this. A textbook is not a copy of the past and it isn't possible to eliminate bias so the aim is to enable students to hear the authorial voice that you make clear here. Is that reassuring?


Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 20/05/2014 - 21:24

Is Michael Gove writing textbooks in his spare time? Two of my children studied history at AS and A level and I used to enjoy reading their text books but never came across anything as biased as this.


Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 21/05/2014 - 06:26

Henry - it's interesting to subject the Telegraph piece to historical analysis. First, who wrote it? A "senior account executive" from April 2014 at Media Intelligence Partners, the PR firms set up by former Tory spin doctor Nick Wood which received £60,000 from Tory MPs in 2009.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/mps-expenses/5384505/MPs-expe...

Second, when was it written? At about the same time Gove was attacking the Blob.

Third, what was it saying? That history teaching in English schools and unis is dominated by "Leftist" thinking (which apparently includes showing the results of Napalm bombing).

Fourth, what is the evidence? It's all anecdotal. There are no links to syllabuses, course content, exam papers etc.

Fifth, is there evidence of bias? Yes.

Owen Tuckett's picture
Mon, 26/05/2014 - 02:23

Absolutely spot on. Let's hope Gove and the rest of this sorry bunch are thrown out before this propaganda takes hold in schools.


agov's picture
Wed, 21/05/2014 - 07:12

no

If it is giving an opinion it should say so.

agov's picture
Wed, 21/05/2014 - 07:17

"“Margaret Thatcher rose magnificently to the challenge… It was vital that aggression be defeated for the sake of British self-respect and the rule of law in the world … It was a simple case of right and wrong.”"

Not a view that much bothered Ronal Reagan who was way more concerned with keeping good US relations with Argentina until Weinberger made clear the Defence Department would be supporting the UK. More politics than that rule of law thingie.

John Simkin's picture
Wed, 21/05/2014 - 10:58

I suspect Geoff Stewart is quoting someone else when he says: “Margaret Thatcher rose magnificently to the challenge… It was vital that aggression be defeated for the sake of British self-respect and the rule of law in the world … It was a simple case of right and wrong.” If not, the textbook should never have been published as it shows clear bias.


Henry Stewart's picture
Wed, 21/05/2014 - 20:25

I'm afraid he wasn't quoting someboyy else. There are plenty of sources in the book but this is clearly not from a source. It is very definitely the textbook author's view presented as fact.


Andy V's picture
Wed, 21/05/2014 - 16:04

I agree with agov regarding the narrative in the book. That is to say, if quoting a source it should be cited and if giving a personal opinion this also needs to be highlighted. To do neither is wholly disingenuous and bordering on perpetrating an academic deceit.


Brian's picture
Wed, 21/05/2014 - 17:43

' ... Governing Bodies .... must not allow the promotion of one-sided political views. This applies to ... the teaching of any subject ..' (3.1.3)

DfE Governors' Handbook

January 2014

Andy V's picture
Wed, 21/05/2014 - 20:30

Then Brian's reference to the Governors' Handbook must be the order of the day, which means the blatant bias needs to be flagged up to DFE and Ofqual to ensure redress.


Brian's picture
Wed, 21/05/2014 - 20:45

Agreed. I cut the statement down for brevity and also thought that the governors were a first point of call for concerned parents. As well as Governing Bodies the DfE lays the same requirement on ' Academy Trusts ... headteachers and the Local Authority...'


Rosie Fergusson's picture
Wed, 21/05/2014 - 21:46

It would be interesting to see the Marking Scheme for the relevant A level papers .
"1 point for a correct date
9 Points for spouting the correct political dogma".

Joking aside , I have to say I'm shocked by the quotes from the textbook and struggling to believe it's correct ( wishful thinking)

Whatever became of poor old Peacock, the mainstay of the 80s for history textbooks.

Ben Taylor's picture
Fri, 23/05/2014 - 01:25

Well it makes a change from the normal drivel about which particular direction Belgrano was going in.

Objectively the textbook does seem biased.

I had to listen to a fair few numbskull politico teachers in the late eighties.

Now you know what it's like too.

rogertitcombe's picture
Sat, 24/05/2014 - 08:50

Now OK!

So Ben, I am struggling to understand the point you are making. What have your 'numbskull politico' 1980s history teachers got to do with Henry's son's textbook?

"Now you know what it’s like too."

Now what is like? Not 'numbskull teachers' presumably?

No historical accounts, contemporary or otherwise are without bias. I thought that was the main point of history teaching. The point is that history must be based on evidence and historical accounts must be compared with those of others and evaluated in terms of conjectures about bias and reliability.

That is what my 1980s history teacher colleagues told me. They were right weren't they? Or do we now have history teaching controlled by the government of the day to support its own ideology and version of history? A history textbook, published by the privatised exam board that sets the exams, approved by the government, whose author makes opinionated politically biased historical statements is sinister in the extreme. The SoS's recent comments about World War I seem to reflect the same attitude to education.

My 1980s history teacher colleagues, or those in any of the much more recent schools in which I have served would have left it to a parent to complain about such a textbook. Does Henry's son's history teacher defend the textbook? That seems important.

rogertitcombe's picture
Sat, 24/05/2014 - 09:47

I meant that none of such history teachers would have left complaining to a parent.


Henry Stewart's picture
Sat, 24/05/2014 - 18:04

roger, no the history teacher does not defend the text book and is as shocked by it as my son. But it is the official text book for that Edexcel syllabus and so the school uses it.


John Simkin's picture
Sat, 24/05/2014 - 09:52

I was a history textbook author in the 1980s and was involved in the production of the new teaching materials for the GSCE exams and the new History National Curriculum. One of the most important features of this new approach to teaching was to look at the various historical events via different interpretations. In the past, traditional textbooks, gave the impression that there was only one interpretation of the past. For example, if studying the Falklands War, you would look at the way events would be communicated in both Britain and Argentina. You would also introduce the idea that even historians in Britain would disagree about the war, depending on their own ideological standpoint.

This was indeed a revolutionary approach to teaching history in the classroom (it had been adopted by the universities several years previously). As far as I know, no other country in the world teaches history in this way. In the late 1990s I produced some materials using this approach for the European Virtual School. Some of our European partners were shocked by this type of teaching because it was so different to the way it was taught in their own countries. I remember questions being asked in the Finnish parliament demanding that a page I had produced should be removed from Virtual School website (they disapproved of a quotation from a Russian textbook justifying the invasion of Finland in 1939).


http://spartacus-educational.com/RUSfinland.htm


Schools still teach history via different interpretations in Britain. However, it is vitally important that the textbook author remains objective and does not use terms such as “Margaret Thatcher rose magnificently to the challenge..." When that does happen the publisher should be forced to withdraw all copies from schools. I am sure if the textbook author had used a term that was highly critical of Thatcher, The Daily Mail would be leading a campaign to have the textbooks banned from our schools.

Ali Messer's picture
Sun, 25/05/2014 - 11:22

As John Simkin says, the approach taken to History as a form of knowledge at A level means that every historical account should be seen as an interpretation. The problem is the notion of the exam board approved textbook as Roger Titcombe says. The use of league tables including A level results means that there is then undue pressure on teachers to use the 'official' book and for that book to present itself as the basic story, when it can be no such thing. It is then up to each History teacher to enable their students to read all accounts as such and not think that a textbook is here to tell them what to think. The consequence of this is that very evident examples of bias, for example about Thatcher, is helpful to a teacher. If an author hides their opinions by appearing to write balanced or unopinionated accounts, then the ways in which they weight their account is hidden, when there will still be selection, for example.
I am NOT defending this textbook. I am just saying that there are assumptions being made about what teenagers need to read. There is no textbook which is a fact based and opinion free version of the past.
Have enjoyed reading all the posts and related blogs though!

Andy V's picture
Sun, 25/05/2014 - 12:15

Ali, I fear that I must disagree with your position insofar as while any author has the right to voice a personal opinion or personal interpretation of the data/evidence available to them, it is wholly wrong to formally present them as an unarguable fact within the text. To do this is wholly dishonest and woefully misleading and this culminates in undermining the veracity and integrity of the entire book. All that was needed was for the author to highlight that the relevant portions of textual input were personal opinions/interpretations. Had they done this then teachers and students could use them as evidential sources to interrogate, compare and contrast with others and present their position. Lets face it if any student reads widely around the different issue areas they will rapidly realise that what they initially perceived to be an authoritative source is actually a seriously flawed and personally biased set of opinions.


agov's picture
Mon, 26/05/2014 - 08:14

Exactly.


Richard Harris's picture
Mon, 26/05/2014 - 18:24

One of my favourite history tasks for students is 'beat the textbook' - spot its bias and misconceptions or simplistic views and re-write it, to offer alternative views.

One of the problems with history textbooks is they are often written in an 'authoritative voice' so it is difficult to see what is opinion and where there may be contention in an account. At least in the UK there are a range of textbooks that could be used, but the trend towards having books 'officially approved' by exam boards is a worrying one and is one of the reasons why A level students feel the need to read so little.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 27/05/2014 - 08:08

Richard - you're right that the mandatory textbook for an exam course discourages pupils from reading widely. All they need to do is regurgitate the stuff in the textbook - alternative views or extra info wouldn't gain marks.

Another concern arises when the official book is published by the exam board. This results in a guaranteed market for the book. Worse, if the book is published (as in this case) by a major edu-business with global ambitions, then it raises the question of indoctrination.

Barry Wise's picture
Wed, 28/05/2014 - 21:30

OK - a Devil's Advocate argument:

Since teachers (shown in polls) are likely to be more left wing than the general population, it makes sense to balance out their influence/spin by having right wing text book authors. That way, the students are sure to get both sides presented.

rogertitcombe's picture
Thu, 29/05/2014 - 05:15

Barry - Of course school students should read books by authors from across the political spectrum whose views their teachers may or may not support. The objection here is not just the biased nature of the text book, or the political views of its author, but the fact that it is the textbook recommended, written on behalf of, and published by the commercial company that is setting the exams. As Henry says. of course the teachers are using the text book because they not unreasonably want their students to pass the exam. However, as pointed out by many others, such a textbook discourages students from the wider reading that is the true defence against any political influence of having a left wing teacher, a phenomenon that is much less common than you appear to believe.


Andy V's picture
Thu, 29/05/2014 - 06:12

Barry, As I stated previously: I've no objections to the author inserting their personal opinions/interpretations but if they do there should be an honesty and integrity to this (i.e. they must say that this their viewpoint and not couch it in terms of an authoritative statement of fact).


John Simkin's picture
Thu, 29/05/2014 - 06:24

Maybe parents should be more concerned about the political content at Wikipedia.

http://spartacus-educational.com/spartacus-blog.html

Andy V's picture
Thu, 29/05/2014 - 06:29

John, And therein lies the inherent danger of the internet per se not just Wikipedia.


Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 29/05/2014 - 07:41

Barry - the Education Act 1996 requires governing bodies, headteachers and local education authorities to take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure that, where political or controversial issues are brought to learners’ attention, they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views.

This surely would cover teaching materials given to pupils. If they appear partisan then the school by law should offer an opposing view.

In the case of the mandatory history text book it states baldly the Falklands War was the "right" thing to do. So for balance Henry's son and all students following the Exexcel course should also read the autobiography of Times columnist and ex-Tory MP Matthew Parris (pp303 - 307) in which he describes how he regrets how he "howled down" Nick Ridley's suggestion of a compromise with Argentina. Or the sections on the Falklands in the "The Iron Lady".

However, as the Edexcel A level book is the course "bible", then it's unlikely the students would gain marks for offering a view which didn't regurgitate the Edexcel view. But it might make them better historians by making them aware of the importance of reading more than one source.




Alison Messer's picture
Thu, 29/05/2014 - 09:20

I don't think that History teachers would suggest any textbook was a 'bible' at A level and marks should not be awarded for treating any textbook in this way...
But I share the concerns about even the idea of an official textbook published by an examination board, at A level, in History. This is even more worrying when the board is run by a for profit organisation, and the book is written in the authoritative tone Richard Harris mentions. These are important issues, but there are also others.
One reason for studying History is to learn how accounts of the past are constructed and how the past is used by politicians of all persuasions for their purposes. Any official textbook at A level in History runs the risk of undermining this purpose.
History teachers, like others, are under pressure to demonstrate success through the examination results of their pupils, and in this context it is reasonable to buy the examination board books.
Teachers need better books that include extracts of texts used at undergraduate level (now often too expensive for a school or college to buy in large numbers) and some undergraduate texts themselves.
There is a move afoot to change the approach to A level History textbooks and this is being driven by historians...
So can parents and governors help? Yes by supporting any History department that invests in a range of books. So it is GOOD this debate is happening. What parents and governors should be wary of doing is cherry-picking examples of bias or poor writing and using this to suggest what books should be used. This does happen abroad and I would be very sad to see this happen here.
The political bias of any author or teacher can be significant, but rather than just seeking balance we should be seeking History A level courses that enable students to weigh up historical claims for themselves, and have the confidence to find them wanting.

Alison Messer's picture
Thu, 29/05/2014 - 09:24

Any official textbook at A level in History runs the risk of undermining this purpose SHOULD read
Any official textbook at A level in History runs the risk of undermining one reason for taking the course: understanding different accounts.
Should edit more carefully!

Andy V's picture
Thu, 29/05/2014 - 09:47

The Edexcel position is indefensible and untenable. The officially sanctioned course book should:

1. Be honest and transparent
2. Encourage/teach students to read more widely by providing prompts and pointers
3. Support students to research and examine the historical record so that they can draw an informed opinion supported by evidential sources

The content of their official study guide simply does not meet those criteria.

The book should be withdrawn and rewritten.

Andy V's picture
Thu, 29/05/2014 - 08:08

“Margaret Thatcher rose magnificently to the challenge… It was vital that aggression be defeated for the sake of British self-respect and the rule of law in the world … It was a simple case of right and wrong.” (p160)

Was it really? No mention of her approval of the John Knott defence review that saw the RN reduced and announcement of the withdrawal of HMS Endrance, the Falkland's Guardship & Antarctic patrol vessel. No mention that prior to the conflict British oil researchers had reported the likelihood of a significant oil reserves just off the Islands. No mention of the parlous state of the Conservative governments fortunes with the electorate and pure political opportunism of the late Baroness Thatcher in capitalising on the situation. No mention as to just how close we came to losing the conflict because of her governments track record with the RN from 1979 and strategy of using merchant ships (e.g. roll on, roll off vessels to ferry troops, transport and artillery). No mention of the fact that without US support (e.g. supply of sidewinder missiles for the Harriers and American intelligence data).

Does all of this sound like someone rising magnificently to the challenge or a cold calculating opportunistic decision that could have cost this country dearly in lives and international reputation.

Is there a parallel that highlights what happens when opportunism is miscalculated and goes horribly, terribly wrong? Yes, Blair and the second Gulf conflict. Yes, Blair and Afghanistan.

Far from 'magnificent'? For me history records that the lady's decision was damn near catastrophic and the conflict a self inflicted wound through the Conservative government's shortsighted foreign and defence policies.

agov's picture
Thu, 29/05/2014 - 08:38

Nor any mention of the preceding Anglo-Argentine negotiations in which the Foreign Office was obviously trying to find ways to give the Falklands to Argentina. Nor any mention of the widely reported claim that Carrington told Thatcher that withdrawal of the Endurance would be understood by Argentina as an invitation to invade.


Andy V's picture
Thu, 29/05/2014 - 08:58

Quite!


agov's picture
Thu, 29/05/2014 - 08:34

What polls would they be, Barry?


Barry Wise's picture
Thu, 29/05/2014 - 10:20

I was thinking of the YouGov poll conducted for the NUT that was reported in the TES in January:

http://news.tes.co.uk/b/news/2014/01/02/just-one-in-10-teachers-would-vo...

Andy V's picture
Thu, 29/05/2014 - 10:29

Thanks Barry.

I can't help wondering about the implied interpretation that voting for either Labour or LibDem would be regarded as 'Left wing' (i.e. Blair/Brown and still largely continued by Miliband stole the Conservatives clothes = primarily conservative. Not forgetting the right wing tendency of the LibDem's in forming a coalition with the Conservatives).

I also wonder how the poll may have changed with teachers facing up to the reality that if Miliband wins in 2015 he has no intention of repealing any Conservative policies? But that would depend on how YouGov worded the questions!

agov's picture
Fri, 30/05/2014 - 07:47

You should have read the comment by ' delnon' in the article you reference -

"One in ten? So many? In the early 1980s TES reported that 82% of teachers were Conservatives. There's a moral there somewhere: not that any politician will draw it."

My recollection is that back in the days when polls at least sometimes sought information rather than simply confirmation of what the customer wanted to be told (i.e. pre-Thatcher), it was well-known that most teachers voted Conservative (no matter what impression teacher unions might have given). My impression, for what little it's worth, is that most teachers are obviously natural Tory voters. I have quite enjoyed watching Gove and his mates insulting his party's supporters.

That YouGov poll is after 4 years of Gove's unrelenting attacks against teachers and education. Hardly any reason to say that teachers, based on one poll, are "likely to be more left wing than the general population".

OllieS's picture
Sun, 31/05/2015 - 20:12

Geoff Stewart is a laughable propagandist, and it's a genuine shame that his work becomes treated as 'official knowledge' for the students by virtue of him authoring the exam-board textbooks. I've taught the Korea and Vietnam Wars for EdExcel and used his textbook; the level of deceit in it is shocking, and at points you wonder whether he's consciously being so pro-USA, or that he genuinely doesn't know what happened/hasn't done any research, and simply falls back on a pro-USA position because that's easy/fashionable/accepted.

The textbook reads as if George W. Bush wrote it, or more accurately as if it was written at the height of the Cold War. Everything is a simplistic Cold War struggle between 'freedom' (the USA) and 'evil' (the Soviet Union). Repeatedly he completely misunderstands the dynamics of the wars by portraying local nationalist and left-wing movements as Soviet pawns, when any elementary research will show that they were not, and that independence from Moscow was often a precondition of local anti-colonial movements' success. Stewart does this most flagrantly with the South Vietnamese communists (the 'NLF' or 'Viet Cong'), which he portrays as mostly made up of North Vietnamese troops and generally a North Vietnamese pawn. Basic research shows the at times fierce conflicts between the NLF and Hanoi, and more importantly the completely indigenous base of the NLF as a reaction to the barbaric 'pacification' military regime of Diem - atrocities which Stewart either ignores completely, or downplays by saying, irrelevantly and/or inaccurately, that it was worse on the Communist side of the border. His portrayal of the NLF as North Vietnamese pawns is to draw his simplistic Cold War distinction between 'evil' Communists in the North trying to take over the innocent and free peoples of the South, who were enjoying so much freedom under the US-backed regime. One wonders whether Stewart deliberately suppresses detail about the vast popular resistance to the US-backed regime, which went beyond the NLF's guerrilla movement, or if he genuinely doesn't know it existed. Not only is this problematic because it is done to support his pro-US Cold War propaganda line; it also means he fails to understand and explain the military dynamics of the war - for example, you can't understand why the Tet offensive was so successful and struck right in the heart of Saigon without understanding the widespread opposition to the regime within Saigon.

Even by his own 'liberal' standards his writing is a joke: he repeatedly praises 'freedom' and 'democracy' in contrast to evil Communism, yet repeatedly ignores the issue of actual elections in Vietnam. There is no explanation that the US deliberately stopped elections in Vietnam after the Geneva Accords because they knew Ho Chi Minh would achieve a landslide. Equally, there is no discussion of the farcical election the US orchestrated in 1967 to try to give the client regime in the South a veneer of popular legitimacy. The election was a complete farce, with leaders of opposition to the US-backed Van Thieu arrested, voters intimidated at polling stations, opposition press closed, amongst other things. In the event, Van Thieu only managed to get 34.8% of the vote! The utter political and moral bankruptcy of the Southern regime is ignored, as it would undermine Stewart's sacred narrative of good vs. evil.

He seems to have done no research into the actual origins of the Korean War. Just like in Vietnam, for him, it's a struggle between 'evil' Communists and 'freedom', embodied by the US. Kim Il Sung is supposedly a 'puppet' of the USSR, which ignores his indigenous support due to his role in the guerrilla campaign amongst Koreans in Manchuria against the Japanese colonial regime, and the land reform he implemented which was popular amongst many peasants. More significantly, he doesn't identify Syngman Rhee as the US puppet he was, whose hold on power was literally only maintained by US arms. The Rhee regime faced repeated uprisings and even mutiny in the army at one point, which was only suppressed with direct US intervention. This is on top of repeated general strikes. As a result of failing to understand this, he fails to explain why the initial invasion by the North gained such ground so quickly: because it faced virtually no resistance from anyone in the South, as they were unwilling to defend the Rhee regime.

As in Vietnam, he skips over the atrocities of the 'freedom' lovers, such as Syngman Rhee's massacre of over 100,000 dissenters during the initial US advance northwards (mass graves from this are still being discovered today), and the US' mass bombing of civilian areas in the North during the military stalemate (c.1951-53), which even US generals themselves later said was excessive in the extent to which it flattened North Korean cities and destroyed civilian infrastructure. He probably realised that he couldn't ignore the fact that South Korea was a US-sponsored dictatorship for decades after the war (and only ended because of a popular uprising, not because the US applied any pressure for democratic change); he brushes this off, again, by saying that North Korea is worse.

He even goes as far as trying to engage the students/readers in his warmongering fantasies, by asking whether the US should have invaded China (!) in one of the 'discussion point' boxes - as if this a serious discussion that would help the students' understanding!

This has just been a round-up off the top of my head. There's more inaccuracies and Cold War propaganda littered throughout this textbook. Again, I wonder if Stewart just isn't intellectually capable enough to write a textbook on this subject: at one point he asserts that the US pursued policies towards Vietnam in the 1950s which were opposed to French colonialism there - this directly contradicts what he says on the adjacent page when he describes the US increasingly funding France's colonial war effort against the Viet Minh (anti-colonial Vietnamese forces) after 1952.

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