Monday, 24 September 2018

The History We Are Never Taught at School

Every nation teaches history as a group of selective highlights, usually (but not always) to show the home nation in a respectable, or even an heroic, light. This is natural but rarely sufficient for an educated person to make an informed decision later on in life. For example: the exam syllabus I was taught in the 1970s covered history from the 1888 until 1945. It wasn’t bad; at least we covered the German imperial ambitions (A Place in The Sun) and how that ambition led ultimately to the First World War and that, in turn, to World War Two. It was very Euro-centric but it at least mentioned Empire. Plus, it was not an optional choice: we had to take it. When I was fourteen I hated studying history but the medicine that was forced down my throat then stood me in good stead later on in life. 
My daughter, Miss V, didn’t even have to study history to exam level in Scotland. Her school restricted pupils to sitting no more than six subjects at National Five. The Scottish exam syllabus was thus: The Scottish Enlightenment of the 18thCentury, World War Two and the US Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Before then, there was coverage of Scotland’s medieval wars with England. Scottish-centric certainly but not exactly offering coherent themes. 

Why is this important today? Several reason that has arisen in the past twenty-four hours that make it rather so.

The first was a tweet by Paul Lomax “I think my daughter’s primary school is missing the point of Black History Month.” accompanied by the following section of the school letter. Paul indicted in following tweets that he did not wish to identify the school but wanted to
Extract from a school letter
raise it as an issue with them; that is fair enough. I applaud him for raising the topic. My own tweet replied thus: “I suspect you are right. The feedback from the parents suggest that some of them certainly don’t get it: possibly they resent their children being “forced” to learn about Black History? The teachers seem not to understand that Black History is everybody’s history.” It is this point I wish to expand upon. 

Much of Black History is not European history. The rise of the Mali Empire, Great Zimbabwe or the Kingdom of Ghana are three such examples. From the 17thCentury onwards, Black History, European and British history became increasingly entangled; the reason being through colonialism and slavery. Black History Month is necessary because these are issued that are not usually addressed in the school curriculum. Many of the fortunes that led to the great buildings of port cities such as London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow and the great factories of Manchester, Leeds and Bradford were built on the wealth of sugar, tobacco, and cotton. The farming labour was carried out, in the main, by slaves who originated from West Africa. The Asante Kingdom was deeply involved in this trade. British history, Black History and European history has been fundamentally intertwined for over three hundred years. Black History is British history too, but without Black History Month, this period would not be taught at all in our schools. 
The main reason being is that this is a period of British history that is, frankly, bloody awful. As a nation we should be ashamed of this period in our past but how can we be if most people do not know about it? I consider myself reasonably (self) educated in history but, it was only through the recent works of historian Afua Hirsch, that I became aware of how deeply Lord Horatio Nelson, Britain’s greatest naval officer, used his position to support the Caribbean slave trade; having married into one of the major slave-owning families. Little wonder we don’t hear anything of Francis Woolwards of Nevis (aka Viscountess “Fanny” Nelson) and everything about Nelson’s mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton. 
Now I do not necessarily support Hirsch’s call to topple Nelson’s Column because of this but I do support a warts-and-all approach to history. The Black History movement highlights how little the 19thCentury is taught in our schools. If it is covered at all, it ends with the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, echoing the teaching of the Second World War. 

This second tweet, from Conservative and Brexit-supporter Christopher Howarth, who wrote “Re-joining the UK is the only way to re-unite Ireland and the British Isles. Brexit makes Irish EU membership less logical.”At first, and rather uncharitably, I put this viewpoint down to ignorance but I was wrong. Mr Howarth is an educated person who is quite aware of the history of Irish independence and the resulting civil war. This period is covered in Irish school curriculum but again is absent from most UK schools. What Howarth’s tweet shows is a disregard for history: British Brexit supporters simply do not care about the effect of Brexit on our nearest neighbour. If one looks deeper still, it may also give the reason as to why this should be. I see the process of the UK leaving the European Union as a major part of the ongoing process of undermining the EU by the far right. For most Conservatives, this means the breaking up of the EU for the benefit of unregulated trade. Now I don’t think the leaders of Brexit really do see the Republic of Ireland re-joining the United Kingdom except in during a private moment of erotic spasm (as Vince Cable almost said), but their logic is that anything that weakens the EU is good. The UK is Ireland’s biggest trading partner and the hope is Ireland will be prised away from the EU through a process of economic necessity. Hence Brexiters’ complete disregard for the Irish border. They have calculated that Ireland needs Britain more than it needs the EU. If hardship results or even violence is reignited, so be it: they simply do not care. 
As outlined above, the same logic will be used to either deny or campaign against a second Scottish referendum vote. It is easily countered though: neither nationalist camp really cares about the economic cost of their aims on normal folk so why should the SNP argue further when all they have to do is point to Brexit? 
This lack of concern is also the reason why the UK Conservatives in the European Parliament are supporting European far-right politicians like Hungarian leader Viktor Orban. The Conservatives MEPs are not being whipped into supporting Orban because they are seeking support for a Brexit deal. It is abundantly clear that the Conservative right want to leave the EU without any deal and hope to blame the EU for it, at least as far as British public opinion is concerned. The Brexiters want more though: they are actively working for the breakup of the European Union. 

“Those who know history are condemned to watch it being repeated.” This is the Labour Party this morning after shadow-chancellor John McDonnell’s announcement that, if the conditions should allow, that any second referendum concerning Brexit would not have an option for the UK to stay within the EU. There would be no point to any referendum then. I do not believe this is a fudge: it is a determination of the Labour leadership to uphold Brexit. Corbyn and McDonnell want to leave the EU, again regardless of the real economic cost. They may promise a softer Brexit but there is no Brexit that leaves us better off. What is worse though is that they are knowingly playing into the hands of the far-right in doing so. This morning, defenders of the Labour decision were online, claiming that they are merely defending democracy or that getting Labour on board with the People’s Vote is a sneaky Lib Dem plot to undermine Labour’s vote come the next general election. Some of them even blame the Lib Dems for bringing Brexit around up upholding the Conservative government. This is denial and deflection by Labour. The real architects of Brexit are the right wing of the Conservative Party and their schism party UKIP. The real architects of the crash and the austerity that followed are those politicians, both of the left and right, who in their arrogance thought they had controlled the boom-bust cycle of capitalism. 
Labour is playing a dangerous game. Their leaders are gambling that they can take what is effectively a right-wing coup and turn it into a left-wing revolution. I think they are focused purely on the UK picture and not what is happening more widely in Europe. Without taking the international movements into account, I think they are destined to lose. They will also lose closer to home as Brexit represents the SNP’s best chance to gain independence. The SNP do not care what happens to the rest of the UK, although they should, even if purely for selfish ends. 

Brexit is now coming. This Labour autumn conference was probably the final chance to stop it and that is now not going to happen. Brexit is only the first step to a much darker world. There is still much to be done to prevent that world coming to pass. To quote Bertolt Brecht: 

“If we could learn to look instead of gawking,
We'd see the horror in the heart of farce,
If only we could act instead of talking,
We wouldn't always end up on our arse.
This was the thing that nearly had us mastered;
Don't yet rejoice in his defeat, you men!
Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard,
The bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

To live and see such times again. 


Laurence Cox said...

My history in school (1960s) for GCE was mainly about Victorian England with topics like The Great Reform Act (1832), the Municipal Corporations Act (1835) and later on Palmerston, Disraeli and Gladstone. I don't think we ever got as far as Asquith. But then, the school I went to was in Coventry, a Labour city and long before that a Parliamentarian stronghold.

Like most people, I had to teach myself much of the history I had missed.

Martin Veart said...

Thank you for your comment Laurence. I am not a teacher but I understand that history is a moving target. It certainly can and is used to provide children with a view of one's nation and it is the revision of this view with passing generations that makes some contribution to syllabus change. That and the passing of time! Certainly while I was at school in the 1970s, the 1960s US civil rights movement was the recent past. It may have been for your classes that the Second World War was also too recent or, as you suggest, the focus was upon ideas and political movements rather than events. It is like the old adage about the value of talking about people, events or ideas: history can be taught at many levels.

auntikrist said...

I never truly started learning about the History of peoples all over this planet until I left school. The author Howard Zinn totally opened my eyes to how much history is actively suppressed by my US culture. It disgusted me and I decided back then that I no longer wanted to be satisfied by the patent lies my history teachers were made to teach us as children, and even later in colleges and some universities. I try to read as much as possible about other cultures, to help remove the dust from my eyes. It makes me sad that the same old lies are taught still, to this day, in most schools.