A strong nation embraces all aspects of its history – including its injustices
Schoolchildren should be taught that the British empire did not benefit everyone equally
As part of its manifesto for next month's UK general election, the Labour party has pledged to set up an educational trust to ensure Britain’s colonial history and injustices of the Raj are taught in schools across the country. Currently there is no obligation for history teachers to relay a balanced view of the British empire to schoolchildren, a point that has been made for a number of years by those campaigning for an accurate picture of the country’s past to be taught in schools.
It is important for people to know their history. There is a saying that goes: “If you do not know where you come from, then you don't know where you are, and if you don't know where you are, then you don't know where you're going. And if you don't know where you're going, you're probably going wrong.” This adage seems particularly relevant today, at a time when myths have been peddled during the protracted discussions over Brexit. History has been whitewashed metaphorically as well as literally. For example, the role of Britain’s colonies in making the country wealthy as well as their contributions to two world wars, in terms of human and and financial resources, have been largely ignored by the curriculum.
The general lack of historical knowledge is worrying. In a recent episode of The Apprentice, candidates struggled to recall the years in which the Second World War was fought.
More troubling, however, is the attitude among many that this does not matter. Freddie Bentley, a 22-year-old Instagram influencer, made headlines when he questioned the value of teaching the Second World War in schools on Good Morning Britain, a national TV programme. It was too intense for children, he argued, and it would be better to focus on Brexit. There have been echoes of this philosophy in the national discourse, and a resistance to the idea of teaching children chapters in their nation's history that might evoke a sense of shame. Critics say they amount to an attempt to "rubbish" Britain's history.
However, children won't be made to feel that way if the curriculum is properly structured for balance and accuracy. There needs to be a realisation that a strong, confident nation embraces all of its history and uses it to inform its future. German youth, for example, are not only reconciled to their country's history but are better informed as a consequence.
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Some naysayers suggest proposals such as the Labour party's have a race-based agenda. But those who think so must realise that teaching the history of the empire is critical to understand and acknowledge the role of ethnic minorities and immigrants in the UK going back hundreds of years, and that they are also a part of Britain's history. Yet they have been largely excluded from the historical narrative. Having no shared understanding of what made us a nation and how we got to where we are is a fundamental cause of some of the fractures in society.
However, there is also a need to understand what life was like for everyone living under British rule, not just in the colonies. The empire did not benefit people in equal ways. While riches were being funnelled away from colonies such as India, there were those in Britain living in squalid conditions and exposed to disease and pestilence. Child labour and workhouses were rife. Indeed, one of the great untold stories of the empire is how a poor white population in Britain had far more in common with those being exploited in colonies. But those narratives have been eclipsed by jingoistic tales of the Raj, such as the creation of a rail and road infrastructure and the introduction of the English language.
Teaching the history of the empire should of course include the negatives as well as the positives. That will give us a sense of who we were then, to give us a better understanding of who we are now.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World
Updated: November 30, 2019 11:47 AM