Friday, February 01, 2008

An odd view of history

I can almost see the point of this study, that children should not be taught to be patriotic. Nuances in history should be taught. There were times in British history, and in English history, where we were unquestionably on the wrong side. A history of imperialism would be incomplete without a look at Amritsar. The history of the birth of democracy would be meaningless without a discussion of how very limited that democracy started out as being.
But the problem is, it seems to me, is that almost the opposite is happening. Children are taught about British history almost solely in terms of the least savoury aspects of it. Imperialism is now reduced to the slave trade and pretty much nothing else except a sense that it was 'bad'. What's more, there's an increasingly restricted view of what history is.
Alan Johnson, the former Education Secretary, announced last year that pupils aged 11 to 16 would have compulsory lessons in British history. Ethnicity, religion, race and national identity will be taught, through studying immigration, the Commonwealth, the Empire and devolution, extending the popular vote and women’s rights.
This is a very partial view of history. The role of immigration and the Commonwealth in British history is a matter of the past 50 years - in a story that goes back to 52BC. Religion was important in the context of Protestant and Catholic - not the context I suspect it will be taught. National identity? That's a rather nebulous term, and I rather suspect that the first true architects of an English national identity (Alfred and his immediate successors) will be mentioned not at all. In a surprising move, however, I do completely agree with Tristram Hunt, who I usually view as a bit suspect.
The historian Tristram Hunt said of the institute’s report: “I think it’s a very immature approach to the topic. The point is not whether history was right or wrong from a 21st Century liberal-left perspective. It’s about teaching students to understand the mindset and context of our forebears. “The real problem isn’t that our children are being indoctrinated with patriotism, but that they don’t know enough British history."
That look exactly right. It's impossible to draw lessons from history if you don't know about it. Get that right, and we can start worrying about patriotism later.

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