The (white) British History Project

by Amit Singh

Education reform has been high on the agenda since the Conservative led coalition came to power in 2010. Polls conducted in April 2014 demonstrate how divisive proposed reform has been, and how there has been huge opposition to Michael Gove’s plans. The changes have seen a clear government agenda which steers the history curriculum to a Euro-centric and jingoistic narrative.

Whilst recent plans are certainly serving to worsen the issue, they are just the tip of the iceberg and symptomatic of the endemic white supremacist assumptions that dominate syllabi in British schools. This skewed lens is intrinsically bound up with ideas of British nationalism, and whilst Gove’s telling of history is certainly to the detriment of all children, it is particularly harmful for students from BAME communities.

Central to teachings of British history since my time at school and likely prior to this has been the telling of colonial history solely through a British lens. For example, in my lessons, the history of the Raj in India was taught in such a way to suggest that benevolent Britain was trying to eradicate negative aspects of Indian culture such as sati and the ‘caste system’. The violence of Empire and the economic reasons for its development were completely neglected. Children were not taught about the barbaric treatment of those imprisoned in colonial Kenya, or how the British attempted to cover it up and shirk responsibility. This telling of history leads young Britons to believe that the colonial project was impressive and even, dare I say it, progressive.

Similarly, whilst the slave trade is a part of the curriculum, British perpetration of and complicity in this industry is ignored. The emphasis is on the country’s role in eventual ‘abolition’ with organised resistance movements such as the slave rebellions in the Americas having been erased from collective memory. This reeks of the kind of rhetoric regularly doled out by Conservative politicians.

A nationalist ideology of British (and more broadly western) cultural dominance and superiority is propped up through this framing of history. It is these purported achievements that David Cameron draws upon when talking up Britain’s greatness.

Perhaps this loaded and nationalistic telling of history is unremarkable in any nation state. However, what makes it problematic in the context of Britain is that whilst (white) British children are encouraged to feel proud of this heritage, non-white children are almost meant to be grateful for the kind benevolence of British imperialism.

This system of education is perpetuating subtle ideas of racial superiority in white children, often manifesting in outright racism which is perceived to be on the rise in the UK as one in three people now openly admit to being racist. It is drawing imperial lines into today’s society.

A Royal Navy Gatling Gun Team - Eastern Zululand in South Africa

A Royal Navy Gatling Gun Team – Eastern Zululand in South Africa

Through lauding the days of Empire in the classroom, children are left romanticising imperialism whilst holding a negative view of the colonised, who are presented as weak, uncivilised and in need of saving. Children from BAME communities are left with the impression that their heritage is inferior and unimpressive. Well dressed, British armies with the Gatling gun are contrasted with images of topless, tribal Zulus and their spears in almost a comic manner.

Shockingly the current curriculum has no mention of Franz Fanon, Aime Cesiare, Ashish Nandy or other post-colonial scholars. How can we study the slave trade without reference to Walter Rodney and his ‘How Europe underdeveloped Africa’? For a better rounded and more accurate telling of colonial history these scholars should be at the heart of our curriculum.

To drive change we need to see education reform, but not of the Rule Britannia kind favoured by Gove. We need a more nuanced telling of world history and Britain’s place in it. The hangover of colonialism is the diversity of peoples now living on the British Isles and our nationalism must take this context into account.

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Amit Singh is the editor and founder of Think Football and also works on a number of  human rights based projects. He occasionally dabbles in freelance journalism writing about race, politics and also football. Follow him on Twitter: @asingh11189

This piece was edited by Henna Butt

 

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4 replies

    • We did learn about the slave trade but most if not all of it was about America’s role in it, except of course as mentioned “The emphasis is on the country’s role in eventual ‘abolition’ “.

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    • I want to comment that recently my 8 and 9 year olds did a study on civilisations. We inquired into the etymology of the word, and discovered it only originated in the 15th century. We got distracted into the words empire and savage. The children discovered so much, amongst which that the ‘savages’ often had ‘civilised’ cultures of their own, and that the attempts to ‘civilise’ were barbaric, and only successful through superior technology (mainly weaponry) and also the introduction of unknown illnesses. It was remarkably simple to do, non distressing to them, and we still met all our standards. But we opened minds 🙂

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  1. Well put. A failure to present accurate accounts of OUR past will lead to History lessons losing all credibility. I lost all in interest in History at school because it focused heavily on Tudors and the antics of Henry VIII. That’s not history, by anyone’s account.
    History curriculums in Britain do not need Goves’ type of reform. But they do need reform. We now have almost-instant access to information far beyond our borders – children and parents will notice and question discrepencies. If Britain and its education institutions are to be taken seriously at home and on the world stage, the telling of its place in history must be honest and accurate.

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