Can British History be Saved?

Universities must fight attempts to “decolonise” the curriculum

Artillery Row

You might think that the biggest problem in the teaching of Humanities at British universities is how best to maintain quality and standards given the massive rise in student numbers, but you would be totally wrong, for the problem, according to Catherine Hall, in a notice sent to History UK subscribing departments on 6 June 2019, is that “the discipline urgently needs decolonisation!”

Hall, Professor Emerita of Modern British Social and Cultural History at University College London, is an instructive figure, but also all-too-typical of the cultural warfare at stake. History Workshop published two blogs last term in their learning and teaching section: Eleanor Newbigin’s “What does it mean to decolonise History teaching and research at SOAS?” and Radhika Natarajan’s “Imperial History Now”. The latter claims that “calls to decolonise curricula are more than a matter of addition, subtraction, or replacement of authors and texts. Instead, they are calls to address the relationship between the forms of knowledge we value in the classroom and the inequities and violence that exist on our campuses and in the world . . . Decolonising the curriculum is not an end, but the beginning of a longer process of transformation.” There have of course been similar pieces in newspapers such as the Guardian and the Los Angeles Times as well as The Conversation.

There is also pressure across the curriculum, as at Exeter. I note for example proposals for “decolonising the curriculum” in terms of “curriculum review: assessment and attainment gap; staff-student roundtables; and teacher training.” The last two are intimidatory as well as Orwellian or Maoist. They are supported by inclusion in departmental away-days, which have been characterised to me by a still-serving professor as “sitting in a room discussing the ‘tropes of Said’ and the startling similarity between the plight of present-day female academics, transsexuals and those scarred by a history of colonisation.”

Research and teaching entail an open-minded engagement, but that is certainly not on offer here. Let us, indeed, turn to Hall, who was one of the all-too-instructive additions to the Fellowship of the British Academy made in 2018. It is interesting to note that in 2016 Professor Hall turned down a prize from the Dan David Foundation in Israel for her pioneering of gender history research, apparently due to her support for the Palestinian boycotts, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel; the British Committee for Universities of Palestine described her decision as “a significant endorsement of the campaign to end ties with Israeli institutions”. The irony of such virtue-signalling at the time of the Syrian civil war is painful, but if that has passed by the stalwarts for boycotting Israel, it tells you much about both that cause and “anti-imperial” history in general.

Hall’s book Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain is a committed work as well as a scholarly one, and shows all the strengths and weaknesses of such commitment. Hall explains that she became an historian of Britain and empire to explain the legacies of colonialism for the British, and that she started work on Thomas Macaulay in the wake of the “war on terror”. Hall presses on to explain that she was opposed to the 2003 Gulf War “and horrified by the claim that the West had the right to assume such positions of moral certitude, apparently with no memory of past ‘civilising missions’, key aspects of some phases of European colonialisms. This was the return of the . . . assumption that Britain, despite its loss of empire, could use force and legislate for those others who were stuck in barbaric times, who needed white knights to rescue them. Moral rectitude was masking new geo-political claims. Britain’s shameful colonial history in Iraq, and subsequently in Afghanistan, seemed to be entirely forgotten. The discourse of liberal humanitarian intervention under the sign of gender equality was deployed unproblematically. Yet this was a reconfiguration of the arguments made by nineteenth-century imperialists – including both Macaulays – for an empire of virtue and civilisation.”

Hall then offered a brief intellectual autobiography, noting that her formation as a historian was at the highpoint of radical social history in the 1960s, and how she had then moved on to argue that “racial thinking underpinned white English identities”. So far, so clear. For Hall, Britain, thanks in part to empire and to imperial manhood, became “a nation founded on gender, class and ethnic inclusions and exclusions” 

While this approach helps explain writing as a form of personal therapy, this is not some theme offered in the introduction and then discarded in favour of a less committed (may one say less partisan) scholarship. Instead, this thesis is presented throughout. For example, for Thomas Macaulay, “his universalism was always undercut by his nationalism”. He is presented, like Charles Dickens, as hating slavery but as feeling “only contempt for Africans and their defenders”, a contempt that Hall sees as an aspect of a more wide-ranging “space of difference, the gap between imperial men and their colonised others”. Whatever your views of Macaulay, this is a misreading of Dickens’s more complex approach, one based on the amnesia of selective quotation.

Hall’s study is certainly fascinating on family, upbringing and the dissemination of values, richly probing on the developing psyche of imperial engagement, and an exposure of self-interest in the presentation of the Whig view, not least in the case of empire, but there are many problems with her approach. It is too common to see British imperialism as separate to that of other imperial powers of the period. Denmark, the Netherlands, France and the USA, all also saw a move from abolitionism to liberal imperialism, while, of course, there were also non-Western imperial powers with their own sense of destiny, for example China in Xinjiang. Hall really fails to locate the Macaulays in this background.

Linked to this lack of adequate contextualisation for imperialism, there is also a sense of “so what?”. Is it surprising that Whig intellectuals, whether or not presented as apologists, offered a view of the world in which they associated their values and interest with progress and civilisation? This is not exactly news; and, ironically but all too predictably, Hall displays very much the same tendency in her work, identifying values with her own concept of progress.

That raises, of course, the bigger question of how best, in the context of modern British history, to discuss imperialism; and history in general. Personal commitment does not excuse any fondness for argument by assertion and without adequate qualification or sufficient caveats. Nor is such a practice acceptable simply because the author is at a major institution or is published by a leading press. Would Hall’s approach be allowed for junior academics, let alone students? Presumably only if they agreed with the precepts, a point that is more widely true of an approach that seeks not pluralism but rather the certainty of an imposed zeitgeist.

More generally, how is empire to be presented in a way that does more than make sense of it largely in terms of modern values? That clearly will not be provided in the “decolonisation” approach, which is explicitly antithetical to academic methods in that it proclaims its engagement as its rationale. In a classic instance of Butterfield’s definition of anachronism – making the study of the past a ratification or attack on the present, the past is to be used, in the form of a supposedly exemplary decolonisation, as part to an attempt to recast ideas to match an account of British society designed to provide an exemplary future; or at least to defend the role of universities and the careers of particular academics. Their view of being an historian appears to be of spending their time wishing that people in the past did not think as they did, and converting this into a platform for socio-political activism in the present. This has no analytical substance, and, indeed, both threatens to dissolve the discipline and leaves the student not so much short-changed as totally cheated.

Leave aside, please, the temptation to observe that those who talk about teaching are frequently those who cannot do it. While that is true, the issue of decolonisation is too serious for such points. Instead, we have a clear instance of the standard idea of capturing the institutions and then propagating an ideology. That, indeed, is at full tilt, and notably so in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Decolonisation might sound good to some and silly to others, but it is certainly a programme that is authoritarian in its methods and totalitarian in its objectives.

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