Wednesday, 19 October 2011

History, empires, and free publicity

The Newsnight presenter, Jeremy Paxman, in a move which I’m sure is completely unconnected with any attempt to gain some free publicity for his latest book (or the BBC series to be based on it next year), has complained that the British Empire has been written out of the school history curriculum, and that that leaves pupils with an incomplete understanding of what has made ‘us’ what we are.
Actually, I think he has a point.  Like it or loathe it, the role which the British Empire played in making the world what it is today is significant; and it is hard to argue either with the idea that the imperial past of these islands continue to have an impact today.  Equally, though, the teaching of the history of Wales has long been deficient in our schools as well.  Knowing where we came from is an important part of understanding what we are, and where we came from necessarily includes both the Welsh and the British experience.
On one specific example, I think that he’s absolutely right to suggest that the readiness of recent British Governments to go to war on a regular basis is at least in part a hangover from the days of Empire.  An understanding of why and how that attitude is so prevalent would in itself not be a bad thing.
That raises, though, the question about what, exactly, should be taught.  Because whether a readiness to go to war is a positive or a negative result of that imperial past is a value judgement, not just a question of understanding history.  And I’m not convinced that there’s any such thing as ‘neutral’ history; the facts and events selected for teaching, and the importance ascribed to them are matters of perspective.
As with all of history’s empires, a rounded assessment of the British Empire would have to say that there were both achievements and brutality; good and bad.  Where the balance lies depends on perspective, not fact.  The empire enriched some and impoverished others; inevitably they will see it rather differently.
Some of his comments (“It’s to the Empire that we owe our sense of ourselves as somehow special, our distrust of continental Europe…”) do not encourage me to think that his history curriculum would bear much similarity to mine.  He has identified an important gap – but filling that gap is far from straightforward.


Hendre said...

Jeremy Paxman - the new David Dimbleby.

With Dimblebly's imminent retirement I'd hoped we get a respite from 'English public school boy' history. Seems not.

Anonymous said...

Fact is, there's so much history ... and so little time. Schools and the curriculum have to chose some and not others.

However, I'd support more teaching of Welsh history and also British history. In terms of modern European history, then in many ways, the First World War is more instructive than the last. Afterall, the 'new' states which came into existence were mostly those Wilsonian states which were 'created' after the Great War. The set-up of post 1945 only lasted forty odd years. So, the 'quiet' 'cultural' and less violent (though, not pacifist either) nationalism of these nations are more instructive and usefull now than the racism of Nazis and their legacy.

Anonymous said...

Archaeology is defined as the study of human society, primarily through the recovery and scientific analysis of the past material. History is defined as the presentation of information about past events.

It is no accident that in German schools, the historical record prior to 1945 is taught as a social science. Historical presentation (when and who) is scrutinised by why and how. If the 'British' cannot come to terms with the scientific analysis of their own history, then that is merely refusing to come to terms with gaps, omissions and inaccuracy of the record. The debate is about relevance and one of fear.

It reminds me of my expulsion from history lessons in school. The teacher was asked me who came before Henry VIII, and my reply was Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymor, and Ann of Cleves. Scientifically accurate, but historically the wrong as there's an assumption in the question.

Adam Higgitt said...

I really enjoyed this post. I'm not sure if the accusation (that the British Empire has been written out of the curriculum) is true, but I certainly agree that we need to find a way to teach this episode of Welsh, British and world history and its effects in a way that neither presumes it to have been a shameful episode, nor that glorifies it.

On WalesHome I once wrote a piece about civic Welshness looking like a sort of chronological doughnut, with the only distinctive traditions being either hundreds of years old or very, very recent - and only a void in between. This is the same phenomenon: not knowing how to incorporate the period of the highly unitary British state into any account of Wales and Welsh history that neither condemns or celebrates it, we simply ignore or underplay it.

It is possible - indeed it ought to be the function of any decent attempt at history to present it through the prism of the present, but relatively free of whatever value judgements we may hold. Britain's imperial past was a very significant component of the British state and of the Welsh nation - you shouldn't have to either love or hate that fact to recognise it as such.

John Dixon said...


" a way that neither presumes it to have been a shameful episode, nor that glorifies it" and "...not knowing how to incorporate the period of the highly unitary British state into any account of Wales and Welsh history that neither condemns or celebrates it, we simply ignore or underplay it."

Good ways of putting it. Being judgemental about the past is a result more of perspective and outlook than of any attempt at impartial historical analysis, but a lot of us struggle to keep that distinction clear, in our attempts to make history serve our purposes today. And attempting to judge decisions and actions taken in the past is to impose today's standards and morality on a completely different context. (Although there's also a danger that trying to be too accommodating to the 'context of the age' can lead us to excuse the inexcusable of the past - it's a fine line to tread.)

I accept that, for better or worse, the period of Empire, the very 'British' period of the past, is part of what we all are today, even those of us who might wish it had been otherwise. To ignore or underplay it is to ignore or underplay part of what makes us what we are. Even those who see Welsh identity as having remained in some ways different from English or British identity should not be afraid to recognise that the British period has affected that Welsh identity too.

If I disagree with anything in your comment - and it would be no more than a minor disagreement - it would be the idea that history can ever be presented "free of whatever value judgements we may hold" (even when prefaced with the word "relatively"!)

I'm reminded of the Soviet historian who was reputed to have said "In our country, only the future is certain; the past is always changing". He turned out to be wrong on the first part, but the second is much more general in application than simply to the old Soviet Union. We may not doctor photographs to reflect who is currently in favour, but 'history' has changed a lot since I was in school, and no doubt will change further in the future. Mostly, it doesn't change because of new or changed facts, but because of changing emphasis and interpretation.

I still think we should teach a more rounded history in our schools, but I suppose that my underlying point is that when we start to think about what that means in detail it isn't actually a very easy thing to do.

Adam Higgitt said...

Don't get me wrong, I'm not arguing for a completely relativistic interpretation of history (or imagining that such a thing is even possible). It would be very hard, for instance, to suggest that there were pluses as well as minuses to the German state circa 1933-45. There are times when we can only but look upon certain historical episodes and actions and declare them bad (or, indeed good), although these are quite rare and seldom apply to movements as expansive as Britain's imperial era.

We of course look at history on the basis of our existing and contemporary values but the real trick is trying to filter the enduring, “universal” values from ones which are either more transitory or which come as a function of being more modern. It isn't easy: where, for example, does much of the racism exhibited by British imperialists fit into this? Was it wrong and bad in any objective sense, or can we excuse it on the basis that it was a different age with different assumptions about race and civilisation? I prefer to try and do neither when I can, and simply seek explanations as to why people acted in such a way. We all like to tell ourselves we wouldn't have been one of the racists had we lived in the 18th century and come into contact with hitherto undiscovered non-Christian cultures, but can we be so sure about that?

Part of what makes learning about history enjoyable - for me at least - is trying to put oneself in the very different and (to our minds) often irrational mindsets of our forebears. It makes no sense to us secularists that starving peoples would use some of their scarce resources to make offerings to their gods, but they lived in a world where those gods were very real to them and all around them - it would have equally made no sense to them to risk angering such an entity for the sake of a little more food on their tables. Unless you try and get behind the bald facts history will just be a series of baffling or apparently unjust acts. So for the British Empire is isn't nearly enough to simply say we marched all over the planet exploiting and oppressing people (or, indeed, civilising them if that's your take) - you need to know why this particularly corner of the world got itself into such a position whereby it could and thought it should exercise dominion over so many foreign lands. And, as you say, you also need to try and discover and teach what the legacy of that era is today.

John Dixon said...


I disagree with precisely nothing there! They should put us in charge of the curriculum...