If you believed the crowds in the streets last weekend, the commentariat in the papers, or the loudmouths of the Twitterverse, you’d think that Britain was still an imperial powerhouse grinding down the oppressed peoples of this world. You’d be of the belief that we all wander the streets taking in every inch of ornamentation, every monument, and every plinth. You’d know with all the certainty of a grievance studies graduate student that our schools don’t teach numeracy or literacy to the next generation but instead only transmit the words of Rule Britannia into young impressionable minds. In this vision of reality, I can’t tell you what the thought of Queen Victoria with an orb and sceptre in her hands would do to teenagers.
I can only assume the denouncers think this because they haven’t been to a school, college or university at any point in the past three decades. The British Empire, although absent as a topic in and of itself in school, was still referenced to in lessons on the evils of the Irish Famine, the oppression of the Indian subcontinent by colonialist forces, the role of the British in the slave trade, the partition of the Middle East, or images of Cecil as the Rhodes Colossus astride the whole continent of Africa.
It is odd, to say the least, indeed even jarring, to read demands by protestors in central London and Bristol over the past week that we need to reform the curriculum to teach everybody more about the Empire. Who do they think has been teaching us? What do they imagine we have been taught? I’ll give you a hint: it hasn’t been Practical Imperialism 101.
There’s a few issues at play here. First, the protestors are largely in their teens or twenties and I don’t think there has been a resurgence in pro-colonial attitudes in the teaching profession since I left school a decade ago. So I suspect that these kids were either not paying attention in class, or had teachers that simply weren’t that good.
Overwhelmingly, brow-beatingly, simplistically, the actual history of the Empire is now one that is for most children in schools today reduced solely to the idea of our country as vile and cruel, and the modern man an inheritor of the sins of his forefathers.
In fact, New History, as it’s known, has been the overarching theme of teaching history in this country since the end of the Second World War and the introduction of comprehensive education spread it institutionally throughout the country, as did the National Curriculum.
Its entire focus is on “empathy” and “sympathy” to those who had traditionally been ignored or sidelined in history. The chronological form that fits under the exam system and National Curriculum is largely an add-on, and focuses by local schools necessarily fit the expertise and choice of the teacher in charge of lesson-setting.
I can’t tell you what the thought of Queen Victoria with an orb and sceptre in her hands would do to teenagers.
It should not be a surprise to anyone that teachers with bored school children regularly try and actively engage children with topics that are close to home, or close to the majority of their classrooms’ personal histories. That might be the industrial and post-industrial history of the area, the World Wars, or even in Bristol, yes, the slave trade. And let’s not even get into the debate about whether a National Curriculum is something that should exist in the first place, or the issues involved in Britain’s competing and devolved nationalisms about what “our national story” should look like.
To teachers and professors like Lydia Riley, who complain about the British not knowing about their imperial history, I have only this to say: people of your viewpoint have been running the entirety of the education system for over seventy years; if anyone has failed, it’s you.
Revisionism occurs regularly within the historical discipline. The best historians enhance understanding of the periods and unlock doors to more voices and more experiences, while others, such as the moralisers of the 19th century or those with microphones today, simply apply their own politics onto the past. Criticising and exploring your country’s and your families’ past doesn’t diminish your identity or reduce your patriotism. In fact, it can help you examine your own place more clearly. But if we do that, these revisionists might not like the outcome.
You cannot capture the nuances of a myriad of lives in a country of tens of millions who live across class and ethnic lines, whose histories are themselves intermingled in the fates of billions worldwide in a single period once a week.
If you are looking for universalist values that speak to a human story you are looking to the wrong institution. Liberals of all stripes might well be minded to remember their own objections even to the one that has at its core the mantra of unity and love for thy neighbour, not division and discord. Monopolies on experience beget unity but they come at a cost of potential outright rejection.
If you teach about Empire solely through a single lens, the curious kid will eventually ask why we had one in the first place. Why did an institution last half a millennium, why did millions upon millions of people move across the world to live in the cities they spawned, how did the British one come to dominate over a quarter of the Earth, did it facilitate or hinder the industrial revolutions, why is the West so ahead on civil liberties and the rule of law, does it leave lasting institutional benefits as well as lasting emotional scarring?
The answer is, as with all human life, complex. It’s important history’s victims’ voices are heard and their concerns met, but we shouldn’t overlook the context of ages past, the institutional bias in favour of authoritarianism, and the enlightenment values that delivered us not only great prosperity, but also human rights, the rule of law, security through equality under that law, the ability to question our betters and to have the right to question everything.
If we forget these, and the school child is not able to explore critically, the darker edges of the web are filled with those wishing to answer with quite a different set of priorities.
Our history, if revised by a single side with no mandate and no recourse, will detach itself from the body of the people it seeks to scorn.
It’ll become even less inviting to students that have to fork out the best part of ten grand to study the subject. It’ll become far easier to justify to Mum and Dad why you’re dropping it at GCSE or A Level. All the easier to ignore it entirely, all the easier to forget.
The historians will have been their own undoing. We won’t remember the past at all.
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