Katherine Edwards 

Image© Department for Education

Should history be about encouraging national pride, or perhaps facing up to collective guilt?  The emotive nature of this question might explain some of the vehemence behind the current controversy over the new curriculum.  There are some who perceive that history lessons are currently ‘denigrating this country’, such as Chris McGovern, Chairman of The Campaign for Real Education.  One the other hand the idea of a curriculum designed to ‘celebrate the distinguished role of these islands in the history of the world’ as Gove put it, has provoked outrage among many who feel that it is not the place of the history curriculum to encourage patriotism.  History teachers and academics have emerged from their classrooms, libraries and lecture rooms to enter the public debate in the press, online and on the airwaves as never before, and formed pressure groups such as Defend School History, the Facebook campaign Save School History and an e-petition to scrap the changes and ‘Keep the History Curriculum Politically Neutral’.

Most of us, not least pupils currently studying GCSE history, are well aware of the extreme examples of states which have hijacked history lessons for political agendas.  Schoolchildren in 1930s Germany were taught about the glories of the Germanic past and the Jewish menace.  This was, of course, in the context of totalitarian regime bombarding the public with its message through the unashamedly named Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.  Perhaps what is more surprising is how widespread the politicisation of history has been and in some cases still is, in many societies which would be horrified to be seen as totalitarian and some of which are much nearer the liberal-democratic end of the spectrum.

Sometimes the politicisation is most evident in the omissions.  In modern Japan, for example, students are raced through a formidable chronology of rote learning, to put even Gove’s curriculum in the shade.  It attempts to cover over a million years of history – from the emergence of homo erectus to the present day – in just one year’s worth of lessons.  Many schools do not quite make it to the twentieth century.  Those that do reach that point get only one sentence from their textbook about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, which is ironically the only Japanese history that most British pupils know about.  They receive one line in a footnote about the rape of Nanking, six weeks of atrocities by the Japanese army after the city fell to the Japanese in 1937.  No wonder Japanese students react with bewilderment when confronted with the hostility of neighbouring Asian countries especially South Korea and China.

In France aspects of recent history have, until recently, been subject to less obvious but equally real evasion. In July 2012, Françoise Hollande hit the headlines when he correctly described the Val d’Hiv roundup of 13,152 foreign Jews by French police in July 1942 as a “crime committed in France by France”.  This followed decades of underplaying French active collaboration in the Holocaust – a denial which at one point extended to the censoring a scene from the film Night and Fog (1955), showing a French police officer, identifiable by his cap, guarding the Pithiviers deportation camp, to obscure the officer’s cap and imply that he was German.

In the USA the politicisation has been more about race than national self justification.  For a century following the Civil War, the majority of history books systematically denied the centrality of slavery to the war, instead emphasising issues of state rights, the mutuality of suffering and the valour of both sides’ soldiers.  Slavery was presented as a relatively benign, genteelly unprofitable institution which was incidental rather than central to the war’s causes.  Post Civil War Reconstruction was presented as a time of trial and tribulation, of corruption, incompetent government, military rule and so-called ‘negro domination’.  It was a narrative which had evolved to serve a segregated society, and when in 1910 African American historian WEB Du Bois presented a paper to the American History Society giving an alternative view – and one much closer to the current consensus – he was not invited back.

Vladimir Putin takes an active interest in encouraging so-called ‘positive history’ which can be summed up by his recent statement to a group of teachers: “Russian history did contain some problematic pages…. But so did other states’ histories. We have fewer of them than other countries. And they were less terrible than in some other countries.”  He has recently endorsed a new history manual which describes the USSR as ‘an example for millions of people around the world of the best and fairest society’.  The ‘positive history’ textbook reportedly devotes 80 pages to Stalin’s industrialisation programme and a single paragraph to the great famine thought to have killed over 3 million and perhaps up to 10 million people.

At the opposite end of the spectrum modern Germany certainly makes no attempt to inculcate national pride through history. The study of Nazi crimes has for decades been accorded a central place in the curriculum. Discussions which are academically mainstream in Britain such as the importance of the depression in facilitating the rise of the Nazis, can sometimes be cut short in German schools as coming dangerously close to making excuses. When hate crime by far right teenagers is in the headlines, as is depressingly often the case, the call from politicians is often for yet more emphasis on studying the Nazis in the curriculum.

Yet some are currently questioning whether this is the solution, or in fact the source of the problem. The head of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Memorial, Dr Guenther Morsch, actually discourages compulsory visits from children, along with the view that they are a way of somehow inoculating children against Nazism.  He emphasises the importance of preparing young people in advance of a visit that ‘this is a place for which they bear no personal responsibility, in the sense of guilt’.

In Britain, even before Gove’s call to present Britain as “a beacon of liberty for others to emulate”, the history curriculum has not been immune from traces of politicisation.  One of the more reasonable, although exaggerated, criticisms of the current curriculum is the ‘Hitler and the Henrys’ caricature, that of focussing too narrowly on certain themes. The ‘Hitler and the Henrys’ version of history is convenient for a society ill at ease with its colonial past.  Far easier to immerse our children in the antics of Henry VIII and his wives than answer their difficult questions about the time when Britain governed a quarter of the globe.  This is a form of evasion like the Japanese and French forms.

Another example would be the teaching of the Second World War. Until recently a GCSE module entitled ‘Britain in the War’ required pupils to assess the importance of various British actions in defeating the Nazis.  No mention at all was made of the role of the Soviet Union, as though it were possible to assess the importance of, say the Normandy landings, in the overall defeat of Nazism, without giving pupils any credit at all for mentioning the Eastern Front, where over half of the casualties were incurred!  Essentially pupils had to proceed on the false premise that Britain defeated the Nazis single handedly. British pupils still learn a great deal about the Blitz and nothing about the carpet bombing of German cities by the Allies, which almost certainly killed more civilians in one night than the Blitz on Britain.  Pupils are left with an inflated and whitewashed picture of Britain’s role in the war.

For some people, the solution to removing politics from the curriculum lies in the call for a return to facts, certainties and ‘core knowledge’ in education, for an approach often associated with the government’s current buzzword ‘rigour’.  It has a promisingly objective and apolitical ring.  Yet the fact that this rhetoric is being deployed by a government set on the most blatant politicisation of the British history curriculum in modern times (making it ‘our island story in all its glory’) should make us suspicious.  In fact the concept of ‘core knowledge’ is something of a Trojan Horse.  In reality is impossible to divorce facts and historical knowledge from interpretation.  History potentially includes data about anything that has ever taken place.  Selecting which ‘facts’ to prioritise and require children to learn calls for the exercise of judgement about what we consider important, in other words an interpretation.  Gove has made his selection based on what he judges to be important: political and military events which fit into a celebratory narrative of the development of the British nation state.  Women, ordinary people and non white ethnic groups are paid little more than lip service.  Others such as the academics he ignored would have made different selections, perhaps better reflecting the huge broadening of the scope of historical study in the last fifty years, to encompass a far richer swathe of human experience than simply the political or military events which dominated historical study in the past and have been brought back to dominate his curriculum.

Inevitably there would have been lively debate between them reflecting diverse priorities and the final result would have been a compromise.  Only those who seriously misrepresent the nature of historical knowledge – by denying that it is provisional, subjective and open to interpretation – would claim that it is possible to arrive at a perfectly apolitical curriculum. The honest way to deal with this difficulty is firstly to make a sincere commitment to avoid conscious bias as much as possible.  (It hardly needs to be said that a curriculum designed with the explicit intention of ‘celebrating’ Britain’s role falls woefully short of that). Secondly, and very importantly, it is to give pupils the critical tools needed to hold up interpretations to scrutiny for themselves.  The current curriculum, while far from perfect, arguably makes a good attempt at this by encouraging evidence based evaluation of sources, and in this respect compares favourably with many of the approaches adopted elsewhere.  Children who acquire the habit in their history lessons of using evidence to question the interpretations they are given, will carry that instinct with them into adult life, whether assessing politicians’ claims or the latest health scare.  It is therefore not simply the only intellectually honest and authentic way to go about historical study but it is also highly desirable for our democractic culture.  We should resist government attempts to abandon it.

History should not be about celebration, or about a politically correct act of national contrition.  We need to take out both the guilt and the pride, for how can we feel authentic pride or guilt for events over which we had no personal influence, still less try to impose these fake emotions on young people?  Neither should it be about placing our trust in supposedly apolitical facts and ‘core knowledge’ which we require our children to learn uncritically by rote.  Instead we must treat history as an academic discipline.  History is about an evidence based search for the truth and it is essential to its integrity as an academic discipline that we strive to keep the political agendas out.

Katherine Edwards


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