Why British History Should Be Taught In Schools

I have been going over this in the back of my mind for a while now and I am still not entirely sure that I am settled with all the facts and balances, so expect a review of this – especially if I get a chance to research it at Uni next year.

Recently I was listening to some experts and practioners discussing schools, education etc. Out of the general discussion came an almost throw away comment that was accepted by the group. In  a dismissive and sarcastic manner someone said “As if schools should only teach British history”. As it often does this comment and its context stuck in my mind and gentle itched away. The context was clear – the speaker clearly felt that British history was not of a value relative to its current curriculum status, or even a requirement within the syllabus.

But we live in Britain. Surely a sound and thorough appreciation of its history should be core to a history curriculum?

So should we only teach British history in school? Is there a benefit to a multi-cultural syllabus? In a modern global world how should we view British history, and how does that compare with other, Western countries?

Last term I wrote a paper describing why society needs history. What we can dismiss is the part of the discussion where it was shown that the ruling elite needs to use a version of common history for control. There is evidence of this in every country and every government. Not only can you walk into a lot of museums in this country and see this in action, but just have a look at countries like Malaya and Tajikistan (or even the argument over the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian) to see how the ruling elite is using a version of common history to create a nation, and also to draw the lines between those who belong, and those who don’t. What is key to this is that it happens anyway and it is beyond the parameters of this blog to try and analyse, although it does form a part of the argument; after all the government controls Education.

Society needs history, and needs a history. It provides a common bedrock to the decisions, links and directions any community takes. Understanding who we are and how we have arrived at the point we are now not only helps us decide our futures, but also allows us to build links and bridges with different communities that could be quite diverse to ours. Understanding who you are leaves you confident to explore and try and understand others. Much discrimination comes from fear, fear of the unknown and a fear built up on the reliance of miscommunication and rumour. A good example of this is the fear and discrimination targetted at immigrants to the UK by the media and extreme political organisations in this country “taking our jobs”. This despite there being little evidence to support this; there being over 3m unemployed and 400k jobs available; and the economic need for immigrants in most if not all modern western capitalist democracies.

We are being steered towards a multi-cultural society in the UK, yet I have seen little evidence of multi-culturalism being successful in history. What you have seen is a dominant culture and society being tolerant of local cultures and societies and encouraging interaction, for example Rome, Persia and the British Empire. What you have also seen is the systematic, forced conversion of societies into a single, broad cultural identity possible examples being the Islamic fundamentalist expansion into ruling elites. So if multiculturalism cannot work, then we should look to an alternative. We should accept that we are British, that there is a dominant culture in British society, that it has a history, and that history is replete with examples where dynamic interaction and conflict with other cultures within and without these shores has improved that society.

So how does this translate into education? Well if you are of the opinion that education is there to prepare and integrate children into the society around them as active adults, then that is only going to work if they feel a part of that society; if they understand how they can find their place within it; how to evaluate and adopt its values; and how they can contribute and improve that society. If you are of the opinion that education is there to facilitate the child to realise its potential as an person, then they need to develop a questioning mind; to challenge perceptions and conventions; to recognise why they may be in conflict or agreement with the norms of the society they live in; and to ultimately decide if they value that society enough to be a part of it. In all this, the child will need a very real sense of societal history, of how they have arrived at where they are, of what paths their parents and ancestors have had to tread and how this has created the society they are being prepared for or are seeking to challenge. Either way, British history should be a very deep core of that education.

Teachers should encourage a dialectic amongst pupils over the society’s history and their part in it. This would be invaluable for many reasons, not least of which is the skills developed in research rhetoric and discussion let alone the basics of reading and writing. The teachers key role should be to encourage a desire to learn more, while facilitating understanding and commonality between the various cultures competing in the classroom. Having pupils leave our education establishments confident in their understanding of the society they are walking out into, as well as a good understanding of other cultures and how they have interacted and assimilated into that society would not only be invaluable, but would provide far less discrimination in society as a whole as there would be no fear of the unknown.

British history is unique on this planet. The language is dominant in many spheres. It has been both subjucated and oppressor. At one point British culture was interacting over 2/3rds of the worlds land mass directly, and more than that indirectly. It is a country made up of 4 distinct and strong national identities that have not only survived each other, but have cooperated to produce some amazing impacts on the world and human development. British society, despite many past and ongoing attempts to design it, is a product of all that history, it has absorbed so much of other cultures and it has links with huge amounts of the world. That interaction should be at the core of British history taught in our schools. Despite mistakes that every society makes as it evolves, there is much to be proud of of British history, and if we encourage that pride and ownership then surely we will build a far more united, dynamic and confident society than any forced multi-culturalist policy?

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