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The Role of History in British Education

Last week, the Telegraph reported that the University of Oxford’s music faculty announced its intentions to modify its teaching methods in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests. While some media sources other than the Telegraph have erroneously claimed that Oxford wanted to “ban sheet music,” some Oxford teaching staff did propose changes to its music education program based on the stated premise that sheet music is “colonialist.” Among the proposed changes, Oxford’s Music Department would no longer make learning to play the keyboard compulsory. While these changes are unquestionably noteworthy and certainly debateable on their own merit, they also highlight a more general and profound set of drastic and politicised debates over how western nations should teach and design their syllabuses.


In no academic discipline has this debate been more keenly felt than in the teaching of history, especially in the United States. In December 2019, the New York Times announced its 1619 Project. The 1619 Project sought to, in the words of its creators, place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very centre” of US historical narratives. This desire to tell an Afro-centric version of US history reflected ideas that originated within academia and slowly spread into the school curriculum with the Pulitzer Centre publishing its own 1619 school curriculum. In response to this, then President Trump created the 1776 Historical Advisory Commission with the stated goal of enabling arestoration of American education.


What the Oxford news illustrates is that the political battle between “decolonising” and “restoring” education has now very much arrived in the UK. While it is clear that this struggle stretches across all educational areas and topics, it is perhaps most directly and obviously relevant to the study of British history. Therefore, it is more vital than ever that we ask ourselves what is the role of history in the British education system and does it need to be reformed?


In 1976, Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan gave a speech at Ruskin college in Oxford. In his speech, he laid out what was then (and still are) the foundational goals of the British education system:


“The goals of our education, from nursery school through to adult education, are clear enough. They are to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive, place in society, and also to fit them to do a job of work."


According to Callaghan, the primary purpose of education in the UK, is not to benefit the individual but rather society as a whole. If we continue to accept Callaghan’s view then the question of history’s role in the education system becomes: What role does it play in shaping young people to be constructive and useful members of society?


While some might point to the transferable skills learned through the study of history of analysing documents and writing clearly and persuasively, these skills can be learned in a number of other study areas including virtually all of the social sciences. In a report commissioned by the Conservative government in 1993 that focused on the development of a new history curriculum, the historians involved in the report stated that: “the purpose of history and its place in the National Curriculum is therefore not so much what it tells pupils as what it makes them: critically aware citizens …. It challenges the imagination, broadens horizons, develops under- standing, offers experience in a range of cultures, values and experiences different from our own and gives us a basis for understanding the present.”


This view of the study of history is incredibly important in building Callaghan’s “society of constructive” citizens, because it acknowledges that an individual’s ability to be aware of and engage critically with government policy from a broad base of historical perspectives is critical to the functioning of a democracy.


Ironically, while it was the Conservative Party that championed this approach to the study of history, they later became one of its greatest detractors. During his tenure as Education Secretary, Michael Gove sought to create a history curriculum that, in his own words, “celebrated the distinguished role of these islands in the history of the world”. This change in focus contributed to more uncritical educational courses where only 11% of GCSE history classes incorporated Black or non-Western History. Within a year of these curriculum changes coming into effect, the Department of Education published a report stating that: support for immigrant rights is among the lowest of all participating countries and pupils in England demonstrate particularly critical views with regard to European migration.”


Perhaps this outcome should not be surprising in light of the broader UK societal context including the UK government’s positions on Brexit and border controls.


While still subject to much debate, the US educational system has already implemented a number of curriculum changes, particularly related to the study of American history. While it may be too early to gauge the results of these educational changes, it is interesting to note that, according to a recent 2020 Gallup poll, only 20% of young Americans aged 18-29 feel patriotic about their country whereas 53% of older adults aged 65+ feel similarly. This generational divide is massive and educational change is likely only one of multiple factors influencing the survey outcome. Furthermore, this disparity in national views could go a long way in explaining the spate of violent protests we saw on US university campuses before the Covid-19 outbreak.


In regards to the Conservative question of, should historical education in the UK be “restored”? As the writers of the 1993 report have shown, historical education in school was never intended to teach patriotism but, rather, it was intended to provide students with the tools necessary to critically hold their government to account. However, if we are to a go about decolonising and reforming our history curriculum at the pre-university level, as many liberals would like, it is worth asking:


Will teaching a curriculum that puts the evils of imperialism at the forefront of historical education build students who are equipped “for a lively constructive place in society” or will it just violently divide people along sectarian or age-related lines?


Written by Evan Robert Miller


Evan Robert Miller is a columnist at DecipherGrey