It’s been a big week. The sort of week that should make all of us in education and community activism stop and think. Whether this is a moment that will lead to change remains to be seen – I certainly hope so – but we must also think about what that change should look like, so that we tackle the systemic roots of inequality in our society and not just the knock-on effects.
The limited History curriculum has always been an unanswered question in my mind regarding many of the problems we see today. A curriculum which aggressively whitewashes British history, selectively cherrypicks the ‘best bits’ of colonial imperialism and generally perpetuates a narrative of Rule Britannia! feels increasingly out of place in the 21st century. History in our schools has seldom moved beyond the Romans (nasty bits left out), Hitler and Henry and all of his wives. What a lineup.
Aiming to understand exactly why this is the case invites us to look at curriculum not simply as a given, created in some sort of vacuum, but as a system of deliberate and linked choices. It isn’t too much of a leap to propose that the underlying messages we learn in school are a form of narrative making (read: brainwashing) for how we see ourselves now. Britain won the war! History education creates binary narratives of good and evil, black and white, and whilst this creates difficulties which erase the nuance and context of events in and of itself, it also categorically fails to acknowledge that, more often than not, Britain itself wasn’t actually the hero.
I often run an exercise with my Media students where I invite them to imagine that I have just thrown a pen at a classmate. ‘What just happened?’ I ask. ‘You threw the pen at X!’ they reply. ‘Give me the facts. Just the factual information, nothing else.’ ‘You threw the pen. It hit X.’ ‘Did I throw it? It accidentally left my hand. X was in the way, I didn’t mean to hit him.’ Their faces are always the same when they realised how trapped they’ve become. It’s a lesson about media perspective but it stands here: reporting History as narrative, as a story with a beginning, middle and end, is no easy feat. By reporting any incident as a bite-sized chunk, rather than a product of an interweaving and contextual chain, it diminishes our understanding and limits our knowledge to easy goodies and baddies, which is so often not the whole picture. Thus: Germany were bad, England therefore was good.
The problem with subject specific teaching, rather than a more holistic model, is that we teach young people to think of subjects exclusively within the container of their lesson heading – this is why we struggle to implement our maths skills in ‘real life’, or why the science we learnt in a lab contains no direct relevance to cooking tonight’s evening meal. Life isn’t split into clearly defined subject categories – the tearing down of Edward Colston’s statue isn’t just history, or politics, or sociology – and teaching us for sixteen years that the world works this way causes problems which linger far beyond school.
Why is our very limited education around slavery, racism and empire consigned to the subject of History? Why don’t we talk about it in the subject of Religious Education, or Art, or Science for that matter? Consigning events such as slavery to the History curriculum sends home the message that this is in the past, that we don’t need to worry about this now because it’s gone. The last few days have proven to be an incredible education for all of us. One of the most prescient things I’ve seen regarded the image below. So rarely have we been exposed to images of Martin Luther King in colour (compare to Kennedy, of the same era) and the effect of this is to deny its relevance today. Black and white things happened a long time ago. They don’t affect me now. The impact of seeing this image in colour is nothing short of visceral.
Imagine the depth of knowledge we could impart and the inaccuracies and prejudices we could address if we discussed racism in Science. Or Capitalism in English. We need to acknowledge the power that history wields to help us understand and address our position in the world today, not learning dates and names for learning’s sake, but as a way of understanding so much more about our shared humanity and struggle.
Earlier today, Ben Bradley, the Conservative MP for Mansfield raised the oft quoted point that we can’t judge Colston and his like by the moral standards of today. ‘If we start to judge historical figures by 21st century standards,’ he tweeted, ‘we’ll find that quiet a few folks weren’t that nice… Almost as if they didn’t know any better.’ An effective history education will quickly debunk this argument. Any of the persecutions in history – from the Nazis, to the subjugation of women, to slavery in America and even Ancient Rome – provide us with plenty of examples of people, often in private journals and diaries, reflecting on their personal feelings which sit quite at odds with the supposed norms of the time. Not just ‘normal’ people either, but, on occasion, the people directly involved. The sad, and often disheartening truth is, people knew what they were doing. And chose to do it anyway. We cannot simply excuse ourselves from a difficult conversation with the easy argument that, ‘people didn’t know any better.’ We face a simple fact: women, LGBTQ+ people and people of colour are equally as human as you and I – so it is therefore impossible to counter that people ever truly believed different. ‘I was just following orders!‘ the same argument over and over again. We are not more or less enlightened or informed or intelligent now than at a certain historical past. The question facing all people at all times is simple: with the knowledge you have, what action will you take?
A final thought. The curriculum we claim to be taught at school considers history from a British perspective. This seems bizarre to me on two points. Firstly, I don’t recall learning any Welsh, Irish or Scottish history at school – including the parts the English had to play. And secondly, doesn’t this attitude ultimately fuel nationalism? By learning history from a British perspective, and not say, taking any interest in Cambodian history, or Chinese history or Icelandic history, aren’t we in fact saying that they’re less important, that history has been conquered and it was conquered by the British? You’ve never heard anything about Cambodian history, ah well, that must mean they haven’t done anything worth learning about! What a disheartening way to erase the entire history of an entire nation.
Of course, we only have time to learn so much history. But it’s how we use that time that is important. I fully support the petitions to teach Black History in schools but this too must sit in part of a wider context of what we want History as a subject to be. After all, history isn’t just for the past. We’re all part of it right now, and we should be empowered to realise we can make it, shape it, and ultimately, define it.