Like many history teachers, I entered the profession due to a vested interest in dismantling the inequalities generated by the abuse of power. I convinced myself that teaching involved more than simply delivering a syllabus or helping students achieve the required learning outcomes to move up the grade boundaries.
But despite my personal ambition to involve students in the struggle for freedom and equality, there is an agent constantly perverting the course of justice: the national curriculum.
Under the reforms proposed by former Education Secretary Michael Gove, where British history must form a minimum of 40 per cent of the assessed content, the claim that the specification remains impartial and fact-based is controversial for anyone guided by conscience, particularly those who are conversant with the brutal legacy of empire. Simply, our students are denied the opportunity of chronicling the precise evils of British imperialism due to a disproportionate focus on the distinctive features imparted by the empire.
Take for instance the GCSE thematic study titled “Britain: Migration, empires and the people”. This section purports to focus on key developments in the history of Britain over a 1,000-year period, and how the identity of Britons has been shaped by their interactions with the wider world. The AQA-approved textbook from which I am teaching this unit is written and proofread by subject specialists, yet I can’t help but feel it is just another manifestation of the ugly revisionism practised in the recounting of Britain’s bloody history.
When discussing the westward expansion of English explorers and the emergence of the plantation economy across the Atlantic in the Americas and Caribbean, textbooks have barely mentioned how the colonial enterprise was institutionalised in Britain, as part and parcel of a systemic presumption of white supremacy. Dedicating a small section of a chapter to mere polarising opinions generated by the politics of Empire does not atone for the gross bastardisation of history by ivory tower educationists.
Often, my conscience leads me to digress from convoluted schemes of work and lesson plans to shine the light on how the enslavement of non-white people was in Britain’s national interest, be it the genocide of Native Americans by early Virginia settlers or how the industrial revolution was “premised upon the de-industrialisation of India”, as eloquently argued by Dr Shashi Tharoor in front of an Oxford Union audience.
After all, as a Senior Lecturer in Colonial History opined, what good is the Department for Education guidance in studying “the first colony in America and first contact with India” if all the sordid details between the first contact and independence is conveniently spared? As for the teaching of slavery at Key Stage Three, it is only a non-statutory requirement.
The times when I’m teaching by the professional standards or adhering to the quality compliance criteria set out by the educational watchdog Ofsted, students will always remind me of Britain’s monopoly of the transatlantic slave trade. During which time, the Royal Family, Church of England, major ports and textile industries were primary beneficiaries of history’s most brutal institution – and British slave owners were paid compensation for their “lost property” during the abolition of slavery in the 1830s. I feel refreshed by their interjections as it reminds me that teaching history involves a dispassionate and authentic inquiry into the past, however uncomfortable and politically incorrect the truths may be.
In light of Black History Month, where we celebrate the inspiring contributions of those hailing from BME communities, the weight of injustice still resonates with immigrants and ethnic minority students of formerly colonial territories. The cumulative effects of such whitewashing are the culture wars I’m negotiating in my lessons, as a result of the contentious and divisive curriculum where the empire is rendered a civilising historical force with a humanising mission.
Taking our curriculum to task is not an implied demand for white people to apologise for the transgressions of their forefathers. Rather, it is intended to educate the blissfully ignorant about a racist Eurocentric narrative which for centuries anchored the national identity of ordinary Britons, so we can identify modern incarnations of history’s undeniable crimes whenever it rears its ugly head.
As the national curriculum has compromised the ability of teachers to publicly associate with the fight for black survival and crusade against the rehabilitation of empire, it becomes more urgent for teachers to “start teaching unromanticised colonial history in British schools”, as Dr Tharoor argues in his courageous riposte to the apologists of empire.
When I’m sifting through my progress trackers and target sheets, I’m reminded of the dangers of simply prepping students for standardised tests at the expense of nurturing genuine historical insight and reflection.
Teachers do not have the luxury of being selective about the past, and ought to be the frontline of resistance against this historical amnesia.
Whether we like it or not, the only thing that should be vetting teachers for conformity is the yearning for justice. Unless we refuse to be caught up in a culture of Orwellian newspeak, we’ll be placating the aggressors by sanitising Britain’s imperial past.
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