I’m not persuaded by the ‘one history of one little island’ that Michael Gove appears to be pushing. Not least in that anything so appealingly simple must appeal only to the simple-minded; technology is pulling the threads of the world ever closer together and if we’re not to get in a great tangle we had better understand its myriad of viewpoints, like it or not.
Not to mention that historical facts are, in fact, as slippery as any opinion. Take genocide. Holocaust, certainly that was one. But do you look at the proportion of people killed (meaning the Roma perhaps come out worse than the Jews, it’s very hard to tell or know), define it as racial or religious, require only those that were killed in concentration camps be counted, and what about the later events which also count. And earlier ones?
Selection and definition are inherent to historical facts; if you want something more scientific, why then, you’ve found your subject; go, bask in its certainties.
Dates are perhaps the archetype of a historical fact. Yet taken at face value they can mislead; for example, repealing a law has a fixed date yet this tells you little about how widely was it enforced prior to its abolition, and why was it abolished and why exactly then?
Still dates do provide a framework that lets you know how very long ago things were so unimaginably different – or not. Take this snip from today’s Sunday Times: “as recently as 1967 — it was illegal for a black man to marry a white woman in many states.” Or, as the author notes, in his lifetime. Or the date when UK women were granted the vote (on equal terms to men, later than you might think).
Progress? It’s now we narrate it. Perhaps how others do too. Facts are important, although maybe not for the reasons Gove seems to think. Certainly perhaps, the things that seem unthinkable come to pass since the world is not always as we imagine it.