The teaching of history in schools is vitally important to how we see ourselves, and our stories, says Norah Berend, who argues for a broad perspective in order to foster tolerance and inclusion.
Hijacking history for identity politics is irresponsible, because identity politics can be the most dangerous Weapon of Mass Destruction."
—Dr Nora Berend
The historian David Starkey argued at a recent History Today conference that the national curriculum should include ’a serious focus on your own culture’. This comment was widely picked by the media and was also seen in the context of Education Secretary Michael Gove’s announcement that he wanted to put ’our island story’ at the heart of history teaching in schools.
It’s my opinion that the battle for a British national history curriculum is misguided and counterproductive. A national history curriculum is supposed to unite, but in fact it can only divide. Inevitably, a centrally-imposed view of history which defines what constitutes ’one’s own culture’ will alienate segments of any population. And, contrary to Starkey’s assertions that most of Britain is a ’white mono-culture’, this division will not be based on skin-colour.
Such battles to impose one particular group’s nationalistic version in the teaching of history have been fought and lost in other countries. Those battles had nothing to do with multiculturalism. That, of course, won’t stop governments from trying. Yet nobody advocating a centralised definition of ’one’s own history’ to be taught in school today can claim ignorance of where that kind of hijacking of history will lead.
Let’s take a couple of examples. Hungarians before the Second World War grew up learning about the Christian Hungarian nation: inevitably, those who were not Christians were seen as not ’pure’ Hungarians. This resulted in the state-sponsored extermination of about 500,000 Hungarian citizens who happened to be Jews.
In Spain, the contest of opposing political parties was not only for immediate political power, but linked to their ascendancy for educational programmes as well. The contest for history centred round Castilian hegemony and the myth of Spanish reunification under Castilian leadership. Among the outcomes was the Civil War, and under Franco the banning of other languages of the Peninsula and the murder of members of local populations, for example the Basques. They were all white, yet they did not all share the same homogeneous identity.
It is possible for states to impose the teaching of a particular historical identity. But sooner or later that route may lead to segregation, exclusion, and murder.
I am not arguing, of course, that history schoolbooks alone caused these events; but they went a long way towards conditioning the population to accept that some human beings do not have rights by virtue of being human. Moreover, some of the same people who demanded a central control of identity and could not tolerate difference were behind the murders.
Some commentators, doubtless, will argue that all this is not applicable to Britain. Starkey claimed that a large part of England shares a white ’mono-culture’. Perhaps he hasn’t noticed, but there are many white British citizens and permanent residents in the UK who are not English. I am one of them, and I started counting my own colleagues in the History Faculty who fall into that category: I gave up when I reached a dozen. Their places of origin include Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary and the USA. Nobody could say that we share a ’mono-culture’. The children of such immigrants have a composite identity, and what they can acquire through the teaching of history in school is a powerful tool for understanding society. This understanding will come from studying how everyone’s identity is built up of many different building-blocks, and how identity changes over time even in the same place.
I would argue that the children of everyone, whether immigrants or descendants of people who have lived here for generations (which simply means that their ancestors immigrated a long time ago), need this same understanding of complex social identity in order to become responsible adults and responsible citizens. That is why it is in the state’s interest in the long term not to try to impose an identity, but to foster the ways in which everyone can make sense of the variety of our world and the many facets of identity embodied in every individual.