This article is part of a series from Backbench’s editorial team which examines this year’s Black History Month from the angle of ‘making history’. The opinions expressed in these pieces are those of the editors’ themselves, and do not necessarily reflect Backbench’s stance as a whole.
Britain has an overt problem with race, and this comes from failing to acknowledge the horrors of our past. The lessons we learn from history, right from the beginning when we make our first steps into the classroom, give us the ‘nice’ story. One of heroic Kings and Queens, glorious empires and great adventurers like Christopher Columbus.
And this has exacerbated the problem, as generations of people have grown up knowing next to nothing about Black British history. Our focus is narrow right from the start, as classroom history is concerned with Britain’s national story, a version which excludes the struggles of black, British people.
The national curriculum presents a certain version of the past, but it must educate everyone about the realities of all history, people and stories. History is not objective but influenced by academic agendas, and even facts, the pinnacle of all historical teaching, are created, often with implicit bias.
The version of history we teach in schools needs to fundamentally change so that Britain can start recognising its problem with race. Education is proven to have a greater effect from a young age, thus, it is vital that we start to teach children about the realities of Britain’s past, but also shift the focus away from viewing history as a timeline of events, to one that is conceptually encompassing.
Thus, the more we whitewash our past, the more, “we convince ourselves that Britain never had a problem with race.” (Reni Eddo-Lodge)
Coming from a rural, mostly white town, I never had to confront the difficulties of race. At school, I was taught about it from the American Civil Rights movement and grew up knowing next to nothing about our imperial past, or the histories of Black British people. I grew up ignorant, and remained ignorant, until my first year of university when I studied history. It wasn’t until then, that I started to realise the extent of Britain’s imperial past and how black people have been continually ignored and marginalised throughout history.
I often think about how I would perceive the world and Britain’s past if I hadn’t opted to study history at a degree level, and this is why we must put black history at the centre of primary, secondary and A-level education. It shouldn’t have taken me until the age of nineteen to be confronted with the realities of Britain’s past, and I don’t want this to happen to other generations.
But additionally, the way we teach history has to change. Learning a series of dates and events does not give us a broad understanding of the past, but a mere lesson in memorization and recall. History is not one smooth story from start to finish, but a rocky road with ups and downs. We need to give the next generation an education that puts breadth and understanding at the centre – and this can be achieved by altering our conception of history. History needs a thematic approach to shift the focus from dates and cornerstone moments to broad ideas about equality, justice, and society that includes the study of all races, people and nations.
History that is taught thematically is more valuable, as it encourages the evaluation of change and continuity and generates critical minds. We need to stop giving our children timelines to memorise, but encouraging them to think boldly and critically, right from the start.
The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has caused a generation to wake up to ongoing racial inequality. The Black History Curriculum campaign aims to draw attention to the racial bias within our national curriculum and argues that history education needs to radically change between the ages 8-16. Racial bias in our curriculum is self-evident, you’ve only got to look at the guidelines to see that telling a story of how “Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world” is the priority.
Michael Gove’s education reforms throughout 2013-14 gave the curriculum a nationalist outlook, as his personal view on history detrimentally influenced a generation. Gove possesses a Whig view of history, meaning he views it as a story of greatness, whereby our present moment is defined by the culmination of years of progress. This view is problematic for many reasons, but it ignores the realities of history and the voices in which this narrative marginalises.
Gove’s reforms resulted in the removal of the terms “Britain and her empire” from Key Stage 2 and 3 curricula, and instead, the focus was on teaching a “chronological narrative” of Britain’s story, featuring prominent individuals including Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus. It centres on presenting a particular narrative of Briain’s greatness. Despite focusing on these hallmarked individuals, the realities of their actions, including Victoria’s beloved British Empire, and Columbus’ enabling of European exploitation and colonization of the Americas, is never taught.
Teaching history at all levels thematically would generate a global, conceptual and ever critical mindset to help decolonise the curriculum. Presenting children with broad historical themes, such as migration, belonging and empire, equality, identity and ideas, would enable marginalised voices and experiences to feature at the forefront. History would no longer be viewed as a national story, but a true study of the world through themes that encompass a diversity of experience and the realities of Britain’s past.
We need to stop selling children and teenagers a manufactured story of British belonging, from the Stone Age to present day, that doesn’t deal with the difficulties of colonialism and omits Black British voices from the equation. This only produces a generation of people ignorant about the realities of race, possessing a warped version of the past that borders on ahistoricism.
Students opting to study history at A-Level fare slightly better, but there is still a focus on chronology, as studying 200 years of history is mandatory. Students have to study the history of more than one country or state outside the British isles, but this usually centres on Europe alone. However, the exam board, AQA, recently added The British Empire 1857-1967 to its list of modules, which is a step in the right direction. However, these types of changes need to be applied from an earlier age, when history education is still mandatory.
As established, history as it exists in schools needs to drastically change so that a generation is exposed to the realities of Britain’s past, but this includes changing our relationship to history. It was only at university, that I started to realise that history was about far more than dates and timelines. Instead, a history degree deals with the study of “historiography,” how historical arguments have changed over the years, resulting in changes to how we perceive the past.
My department had a wealth of modules to choose from, which encouraged a truly global and thematic outlook. I was lucky, as this experience was able to alter my worldview and how I viewed the past. During my final year, my special subject looked at “development” between the nineteenth century to the present day. I learned about the realities of imperialism and the ‘third world’ through British and American actions, justified by the notion of improving those societies.
It taught me how, even to this day, western interventions in developing nations are tainted by this association with self-betterment and the west being the saviours of deprived nations. It taught me the realities of the imperialist, paternal agenda which has defined British society and politics for a very long time, and that still lingers today. It taught me about the marginalisation of societies the West perceived as “backwards” and how our interventions destroyed their livelihoods, instead of making them better.
In a nutshell, this module alone taught me how to perceive the world around me – which is far more complicated and global than compulsory history education in our schools makes out to be. I was lucky, as I benefited from studying history at degree level – but for the majority of people, history education ends at sixteen. At this level, children are still sold a particular narrative and version of history that centres on British greatness.
History is an integral part of understanding the past and informing our future. If taught well, it can change the way individuals view the world and give them a critical mindset for life. But drastic change is needed in schools so that black, British history is firmly on the agenda, and young people can confront the realities of our past right from the beginning.