Maps showing the movements of armies during the First World War being used during a lesson on military history. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The abuse of history

Universities need to rescue the teaching of history from grip of woke ideologues

A larger section of the British public than is normally interested in classical music recently engaged in an angry argument about whether or not the words of “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule, Britannia!” should be sung at the Last Night of the Proms. A consistent criticism of those opposed to singing the words was how poor their understanding of history was: and, second to this argument about stifling a harmless tradition was one about freedom of expression.

Any intelligent person who has followed the debate about the influence of the past upon the present — and about what has come to be known as “cancel culture” — knows that establishing historical truths is of no concern to those whose view of the past is wilfully conditioned by a selective and incomplete knowledge of it. Perhaps because history has been so badly taught in Britain in recent years its details have become irrelevant to so many younger people, and thus dispensable to rational argument: or to quote Lord Sysonby, a courtier to Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V, “I had long learnt that history was not an account of what actually happened, but what people generally thought had happened.”

Those who attempt to put an alternative view to the new orthodoxy are vilified or ‘cancelled’

Those driving cancel culture — in the Proms’ case the attempted cancellation of a tradition dating back to Edwardian times — are predominantly young. Even if they have studied history they will not usually have studied it in a way that trains them to explore all aspects of any historical question, or that answers satisfactorily the key questions history asks: what, to quote Lord Sysonby, “actually happened”, and why are we where we are? The matter of why we are where we are seems destined to remain an impenetrable mystery to millions of our fellow Britons, not just because many have never been taught, or made the intellectual effort to teach themselves by reading widely, but because many, apparently, simply don’t want to know. The facts, when they are disclosed, often conflict too much with comfortably held prejudices, and so are best treated selectively or not at all.

One can assert the existence of this intellectual deficit with some certainty, because history that encourages the examination of conflicting arguments or seeks to describe in objective terms the mainstream of the past is for the most part taught neither in our schools or in most of our universities. Because of the obsession with “decolonising” the curriculum the perspective on British history must be one predominantly of self-loathing. And Western history, which for geographical and cultural reasons has influenced most of our past, and most of our present too, is viewed with suspicion in case it leads to an idea of white supremacy, or the undue influence of Christendom.

Too many younger Britons know little more about history than they have accidentally read, or seen on television, but peer pressure dictates that certain historical views (such as, to take an idea at random, that the British empire was not entirely bad) not only cannot be aired, but that those who attempt to put an alternative view to the new orthodoxy are to be vilified — notably by the form of mob rule facilitated by social media. To such people nothing is more heinous than causing offence, irrespective of how ridiculous it might be for offence to be taken. A simple statement of facts can cause grave offence — try arguing that Cecil Rhodes, as a result of his extensive philanthropy, was not a monster. Rhodes is routinely described as a white supremacist. He would not have grasped the meaning of the term.

When such ahistorical people (mostly white, and exercising their censoriousness without any mandate on behalf of ethnic minorities whose approach to the past tends to be more open-minded, intellectually curious and rigorous) end up working in any business or institution with a role of putting aspects of history before the public — universities, broadcasting organisations, publishing houses, museums, galleries and so on — hard facts become irrelevant. Only general points matter, such as that the British past (not unlike, of course, the American) was dominated by white people who were almost always men and almost always racist.

One cannot pretend that the past, with all its iniquities, did not happen

Therefore the British past — with the possible exceptions of those elements of it concerned with the empowerment of the working class and women — is inevitably a source of shame, and should be treated as such. And because it is to be reviled, its most egregious traces must be eliminated: eliminated ostensibly in the interests of sparing groups who may have suffered in the British past from suffering offence, but in reality in order to create a culture in society that satisfies the needs of a small group of noisy fanatics for a form of ideological vengeance. Their other desire — to expunge any degree of pluralism or historical debate from society not just by abominating the past but by abominating anyone who tries to present a version of it that repudiates their often low-fact orthodoxy — has severe consequences not only for free speech, but for establishing an idea of the truth.

The Proms debate underlined something apparent to most impartial observers of the arguments about the British past: that such repudiation of that past was deplored, for a variety of reasons, by a usually silent majority of British people. Even if they had had the average state secondary school education in history — for too long little more than studying the Nazis and the Tudors but since 2016 branching out more widely to rather general studies of medieval Britain and of twentieth-century international relations — most had been brought up to believe their country’s past was a source more of pride than of shame.

The more educated see the blemishes of the past but feel the correct way to treat them is by providing context, rather than seeking to block them out in the manner of a doctored group photograph of the Stalin era. So instead of throwing a slaver’s statue in the river, they would advocate putting a board up next to it explaining, in factual terms, the activities of the slaver. One cannot pretend that the past, with its many iniquities, did not happen, but one can give a fuller picture — in this case not just of our unquestioned role in the slave trade, but of the willing engagement of African potentates in it, and of the part the British played in bringing about an end to this abhorrent practice around the world.

As for the Proms, no one since the Second World War, apart from the seriously deluded, has sung the words to those two songs with anything other than a sense of self-deprecation, putting the notion of a good old-fashioned sing-song and participation in a harmless tradition light years ahead of any political considerations. The minority who read some evil intent into this practice prove nothing apart from their own disassociation from mainstream society; a dislocation so profound that even the leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, saw no political downside in pronouncing that the words should be sung.

History has become a vehicle for ideological indoctrination rather than to establish certain truths

It is tempting to say that the poor teaching of history in schools — not just the inevitably limited curriculum, but the increasing fear of teaching much that is positive about British history, or in extreme cases a determination not to do so — has been responsible for creating a climate in which such assaults on Britain’s past and culture can be launched. The teaching of history in universities is often increasingly narrow, with too many history graduates emerging from three years of study ignorant of much mainstream knowledge but stuffed with information reflecting the minority fetishes of their teachers. That may not, however, be entirely to blame for the anti-British, and indeed anti-Western, cultural cringe that currently infects the small but highly vocal group of people who seek to lead secular opinion in this country and in much of the West. That infection is spread not just by an unrepresentative political mob on social media, but also by what has become the culture of prominent and influential institutions.

Although driven mainly by young people, so acrid is the climate of denunciation, and so powerful is the fear of being denounced and effectively “cancelled”, that those in positions of notional power in the affected organisations — senior broadcasting executives, vice-chancellors and professors, and directors of publishing houses, galleries and museums — readily capitulate to those younger, less experienced and often less intelligent than them for fear being accused of racism or some other form of bigotry if they do not toe the line of the new orthodoxy.

When the mob throws out its accusations — such as about the uniform wickedness of the British imperial past — it knows what it believes, not what it knows. The most shocking and egregious example of this in recent years has been against Professor Nigel Biggar at Christ Church, Oxford, who had an international Twitter mob turn on him for claiming that there were some positive aspects to the British Empire. Biggar did not deny the harm that the imperial project did in many cases, nor its exploitativeness, nor what can now clearly be seen as its elements of racism; but this did not prevent him from effectively being “cancelled”. It was the students rather than his colleagues who led the charge, few of them historians, but far more concerned to join in an orgy of virtue-signalling. However, colleagues inside and outside the Oxford history faculty sent him to Coventry and disdained him for fear of being accused of collaboration. What this means for academic freedom and pursuit of the truth, or to the idea of a university as a place of open debate and discussion, hardly bears thinking about, so appalling are the consequences of such behaviour for the notion of intelligent discourse.

There has been a shocking absence of leadership by some vice-chancellors, who share the fear of teachers of being branded as bigots if they defend freedom of expression. But one reason for this absence is that those prepared to take a broad and not a narrow approach to historical questions have become increasingly rare in history faculties around Britain. Luckily, some of the dwindling number who are left have come to understand the threat to proper historical study caused by this steadily less stealthy assault on the traditional curriculum, and that history has become a vehicle for ideological indoctrination rather than to establish certain truths and to be able to determine, with recourse to the facts, why we are where we are.

Universities need to loosen the grip of the ideologues on the teaching of history

This is true throughout the West. In Australia, for example, the Ramsay Centre for the Study of Western Civilisation offered to link with universities in that country to use its considerable funds to educate young Australians about the history of the civilisation from which the majority of them trace their descent. Not only have most universities refused to have anything to do with the Centre, but it has been subject to virulent attacks about its alleged attempt to teach cultural supremacy. It seeks to do nothing of the sort, but simply to teach aspects of one important civilisation without making any value judgments. The attacks on it by members of Australian universities are attacks on academic freedom and the spirit of intellectual curiosity.

Simply teaching history more broadly may not solve the problem: but it would be a start and would reorientate the subject back towards the pursuit of truth and away from ideological obsessions. The numbers studying GCSE and A level history have been falling steadily since the turn of the century; in America the number of history graduates dropped by 34 per cent between 2011 and 2017. Part of this is the general decline in the humanities in favour of more vocational courses; but part of it is because history has become an increasingly niche subject that pushes a specific world view and has replaced a spirit of inquiry with a spirit of certainty. If universities can loosen the grip of the ideologues on the teaching of history, they would begin a process of reversing this poisonous trend. If they fail, the dismantling of the Last Night of the Proms will be merely the bonne bouche in a feast of historical distortion.

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