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The Great Blackadder Debate

Published on 17/01/14

If it was Michael Gove’s intention to instigate a debate about the teaching of History with his comment criticising teachers for using Blackadder Goes Forth to teach students about the First World War, he has certainly been successful.

His Labour opposite number Tristram Hunt, himself an academic historian, responded in the Times with a rather more nuanced view. He ‘would not advise’ Blackadder to be used as a historical text, but believes ‘it can be used as an entry point to think about interpretations of the First World War and the nature of class and British humour’. This follows a number of letters to the Editor over the course of last week. One correspondent was in no doubt that ‘of course Blackadder should be shown in history lessons. It brought home to all of us the futility of the war, its horror and appalling loss of human life’. He asks ‘who would not be moved by the final episode?’. Another correspondent is more sympathetic to the Gove viewpoint which sees Blackadder as putting over an overly critical and one-sided view of the war and the generals who led it. He argues that, by ridiculing General Melchett secure in his chateau 35 miles behind enemy lines, it does not ‘give a fair indication of senior officer casualties in France in the First World War, where some 48 generals perished on the front line’.

As a teacher at the Stephen Perse Foundation who has frequently shown the final episode, I can only agree with the teacher who wrote in to defend those of us in the profession who do use it. She pointed out the rather obvious fact that ‘this is just one of many tools used to teach this complex subject…we present a wide variety of sources to our students and strive for balance’. So, let us count the ways in which a teacher might use this source, alongside a range of others to stimulate interest and discussion.

Ba4First, even those who now seek to reassess the overly critical view of the First World War generals admit that many mistakes were made and lives needlessly lost as lessons were learnt about how to fight a technological war of great length. I doubt anyone would defend the first day of the Somme as an example of successful generalship and the final episode of Blackadder, as one of the Times’ correspondents wrote, is highly successful in bringing home the horror of this day to young people. It is, as Tristram Hunt says, an excellent ‘entry point’ from which to pose questions about the nature of the mistakes made and then to go on to consider how lessons were learnt and victory finally obtained. For a generation so far removed from the Great War, this episode can make them care about those who lost their lives in it and want to know more about it.

Secondly, the particular viewpoint of ‘lions led by donkeys’ that is exemplified in Blackadder and O What a Lovely War! is, as Hunt says, an entry point not just to the war but to historical interpretation of it. It is central to contemporary historical pedagogy to teach students how interpretations of historical events vary and change over time. They need to consider why it is that different historians can study the same events and come to such different conclusions as a vital step to being able to draw their own supported conclusions. The view of the First World War as an unnecessary war, conducted in a way profligate of human life by an out-of-touch elite was born of a particular historical moment and has since been questioned. This could lead to a fascinating discussion of what it is that shaped this interpretation and why it has been questioned. The latest outpouring of historiography on World War I to mark the centenary shows us how contemporary concerns continue to shape historiography. Christopher Clark’s excellent book on the causes of the War Sleepwalkers puts terrorism in the Balkans at the very heart of the story. Any bright student could suggest reasons why that might be the case

Thirdly, another important strand in the study of History is the consideration of the significance and legacy of historical events. Another new book on WWI, David Reynolds’ The Long Shadow focuses on the impact of the Great War across the twentieth century. The War and the poetry, art, literature and even television comedies inspired by its horrors led to a search for peace and a re-assessment of the acceptability of war as a Clausewitzian means of continuing diplomacy. Blackadder can also be an entry point into considering the significance and legacy of the War.

I will finish by quoting again from the letter sent by my fellow history teacher to the Times. ‘Michael Gove should have a little more faith in history teachers…It could be argued that he is perpetuating his own myth, namely that history teachers are all left-wing, irresponsible with the past and wilfully refuse to teach dates and facts to their students’. Now there’s another entry point for a good discussion.