Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: We abandon history at our peril

Some school children surveyed thought Churchill the first man to walk on the moon

Saturday 22 October 2011 21:30

History may soon become extinct in our secondary schools, go the way of domestic science and handwriting classes, only less missed and less lamented than either. A major new study by the Historical Association and teacher training experts found that three out of 10 comprehensives no longer bother to teach the subject, which isn't part of the core curriculum after the age of 13. Only 30 per cent do GCSE history.

The researchers interviewed 700 history teachers from almost as many schools. Most British kids can name every contestant appearing in The X Factor, but as we have seen from other research, a substantial number don't know about the Battle of Trafalgar, 20 per cent believe the Germans, Spanish or Americans once occupied Britain and some think Winston Churchill was the first man to walk on the moon.

And who were the dunces who decided to make this subject optional? Why the Tories when last they ruled over us.

That was then. Today's Tories are ardent History Boys, eager to return to the days when the past was hammered into the heads of the young, mostly in the form of dreary facts – dates, kings, wars and treaties– or embellished tales of glory to give indigenous British children an inheritance of innate superiority.

Michael Gove, Shadow Schools Secretary for Children, has been banging on about this for a while and earlier this year the Tory Andrew Rosindell raised the issue in parliament, but regrettably turned a serious debate into brassy, right-wing patriotism: "The peoples of these magnificent British Isles along with the numerous and unique British territories around the world have a rich and proud history like no other".

Really, sir? So Fat Henry and his sorry wives or Churchill only have to stand up to blank out the histories of Egypt, Turkey, Mexico, Austria, Greece, India, France, Iran and other old lands?

Many of us who long passionately for the reinstatement of history as a core GSCE subject are now concerned about the substance and purpose behind the Tory plans to do just that. They have a burning desire to use history as a feelgood hallucinogen, get its band of revisionist stars like Andrew Roberts to head up the cavalry, to lead us back to the future. As this prospect approaches, at times I think the current state of ignorance may prove to be less harmful. History matters and its narratives are complex. When politicians exploit these and turn them into simple propaganda – as they did in Bosnia and Rwanda – the results can be lethal.

We are not immune. Thousands of Britons today swallow the BNP's message and vote for racist views, thus betraying the legacy of their iconic war against Nazism and the millions of Indians, Africans, Chinese, Caribbeans and others from the old empire who fought with this country in both world wars. When the BBC hosts these blackguards (the BNP will love that label) on its most prestigious programmes and uses democracy as an excuse, it too is guilty of treacherous historical amnesia.

Perhaps the snarling Nick Griffin will be invited on to Who Do You Think You Are. He is acceptable because he has publicly stopped Jew-baiting and now professes to oppose only blacks, Asians and Muslims. Arguably, the lack of good historical education makes our citizens more open to neo-Nazi brainwashers. Young Muslims too, are easily plucked off by charismatic Islamicists who weave fictionalised accounts of splendiferous Islamic epochs when they did no wrong and brought paradise to earth.

There is another disconcerting trend. Britain is deeply conservative and these days looks back longingly to the Tudors, Georgians, Victorians, Edwardians, wartime Britons, and now the Sixties. Historical novels, costume dramas, showman historians, genealogy programmes provide our public with an entertaining and comforting view of what has gone before. Audiences are never really forced to question things or feel troubled. Such canapé trays of past times fill people up with scraps of knowledge, no more than that.

If we are to reinstate history as a key subject in secondary schools, we must do so with a better understanding of its impact, and design the syllabus to tell as full a story as possible of this complicated nation and its connections to the world. MP Frank Field recently called for all students to be offered "a collective memory of the highs and lows, failures as well as the triumphs of Britain".

Few in power have the imagination to take up this challenge because that would be too tricky. Yet our children have a right to learn about British fascism as well as the battles and ultimate victory over Hitler; they need to be taught about how this country set up the conflict in Palestine, a conflict without end, and the mistakes made by the British government when Zimbabwe was created – mistakes that are still used by the despicable President Mugabe. Idi Amin would not have taken control of my old homeland, Uganda without British, Israeli and American connivance. Hardly anyone over 20 in Britain knows this. The coming generations surely must, if only to understand the games played during the bitter Cold War, particularly as we may be returning to those days.

The long neglected positive aspects of our history also need to be exhumed. As left-wing historians often point out, the hard-won democratic rights we enjoy were not bestowed by kings and the landed gentry, but were wrested by oppressed peasants, industrial working classes and the abject poor. Most black, Asian and Arab British children do not know about the many white anti-Imperialist MPs who backed Gandhi, Nkrumah, Kenyatta and Nehru and an alarming number are woefully ignorant of the erudite Arabists who loved the Middle East and its many cultures.

If we had known better the history of Iraq and Afghanistan, our government might have avoided the foolhardy and disastrous interventions that have left us with no credit. I write here as one of the ignoramuses. I was not taught anything about Afghanistan and have only now started to understand a little more about the people and the places.

Oscar Wilde wrote: "The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it". And having rewritten it as honestly as possible, to teach it to those who will inherit our land.


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