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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

History in the Headlights


History is in the news; but not always for the best of reasons.

We read in the media of 'culture wars', of the 'woke generation', of 'national history', of removing colonial age statues, of 'decolonising' our institutions as well as our curriculum.

Add to all this the downgrading of history for school pupils and its underfunding in universities because history is not thought to be of much importance in the world of work, to which so much of our educational system has been skewed. The Times recently quoted former Education Secretary Kenneth Baker, now Lord Baker, as saying, 'There's a distinction between what schools and universities produce and what industry and commerce need'.

This is, of course, not a situation peculiar to Britain. It is present in one form or another across the Western World.

Culture War on Wokism

This divide is often portrayed as the political right against the political left, but it is more complex and more nuanced than that. One group it leaves out of the discussion become the very teachers and academics involved at the heart of the debate over history, its representation, and its teaching. It has become difficult to express a nuanced view in a debate in which the main protagonists have drawn the battle lines.

Perhaps we should have some working knowledge of these terms before we explore further. The so-called culture war is about more than just the subject of history and extends to a debate over the nature of society itself. The term originated in The States. Yet it is difficult to pin down exact meanings. Perhaps, as regards ourselves and History, it might be best to give an example. A group of Conservative MPs have attacked what they describe as 'the woke agenda' of organisations such as The BBC and The National Trust. Tom Hunt, MP for Ipswich, has been quoted as saying, 'Most people in the country are patriotic but that doesn't mean to say they don't think we have made mistakes in history or are jingoistic. It does mean that they don't want to have an agenda pushed down their throat which seems to be motivated by disdain for our country, our history and our heroes'. There are many words in that piece which are construed differently by different people, viz 'patriotic', agenda', 'disdain', 'heroes'. Use of these words is itself somewhat contentious.

So what is 'the woke agenda' that people such as Mr Hunt are so exercised over. To start with, again the phrase comes from The States and specifically from Black activism, reaching us with force during The Black Lives Matter Movement. Yet 'woke' like 'culture war' goes beyond black experience into wider social issues.

However, the terms are now becoming less coherent as the debate becomes ever warmer. In terms merely of History this is where it is more difficult to express an objective view, which may not suit either side. Nuanced is the word. Take a situation I have blogged about before, namely the ditching of the statue of Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour because of his links with slavery, never mind his philanthropy to his native city. I believe that although not wishing to justify criminal activity it is clear that this was the result of years of pent up anger by Bristol's black community, many of whom had slave ancestors. The fact that Bristol's demography has changed beyond recognition since I was a child in the city in the late 1940s, has largely been ignored by The Council. They should have seen tensions rising; after all they have had plenty of earlier incidents to inform their opinion. The statue, in my view, should have been officially removed years ago on the sole grounds that it was deeply offensive to many of my fellow Bristolians. My point being that if, in this case a statue, the matter is a 'live' issue today then the matter should be dealt with, as with Confederate statues in the Southern States of The US, and in the case of the Rhodes statue in Oxford, in ways such as being placed in context within a museum setting. If it is, however, not a 'live' issue then it can be viewed differently, but I suspect my nuanced view would be not be acceptable to either side in the division of culture war against wokism.

I am quite prepared to take a different view when the woke attacks are clearly, in my view, eccentric. An example is The British Library linking the poet Ted Hughes with slavery. The link is that an ancestor of Hughes back in 1592 was a member of The Virginia Company which dealt in slaves. I would find this amusing if it wasn't so sad. Surely we cannot be responsible for what an unknown ancestor may have done or not done nearly 500 years ago. That is surely the way to madness. There is a genuine debate to be had but this sort of action does not help a clear eyed discussion of the issues.

History as an academic discipline is all about exploring the past through different eyes in order to gain a greater understanding. If I have lectured once I have lectured a thousand times on saying if I was co-teaching this lesson with a woman, a black Briton, a person 50 years younger than me etc, etc, then their views are unlikely to mirror mine. That is why we read books giving different interpretation of the past, even if our own judgment is different from that found in the book. On the other hand our own views change. I take it as a compliment when a student says to me, but when you taught this 20 years ago you said the opposite. Well I am like everyone entitled to learn and therefore adjust my view. A good example, although it happened a long time ago, is my perception of Cromwell changed on reading Antonia Fraser's biography. I rather admire, even like Cromwell, today. More recently I have been reading some pre colonial African history and that too has been an eye opener.

Politicisation of History

There is one aspect of this war over the heart of history we must all be on our guard against, and that is the politicising of the history we teach in schools and even in universities. Last month in Poland a court ordered two historians to apologise to a woman whose family they had identified as having had a role in The Holocaust. The argument being that this was anti-patriotic to accuse Poles of being involved, although objectively and clearly many were. The present Polish Government three years ago sought to end what it described as 'the pedagogy of shame'. In short Poles were not expected to teach or write about wartime collaboration with the Nazi regime. The Polish historian, Jan Tomasz Gross, has commented, 'These are not matters to be judged by courts, this is a point that can be discussed by scholars or interested readers in the exchange of opinions. In that sense, it's really scandalous'.

Before we say, 'well that's Poland', we should remember that Trump, as President, set up The 1776 Commission to change the narrative of American history and establish what he called 'patriotic history'. There is that word 'patriotic' again used very much in a political sense. The Commission reported two days before the end of the Trump Presidency. It was roundly condemned by historians and President Biden has dropped it (into a bin?). Trump's target is what he called 'a twisted set of lies' regarding the topic of systemic racism being taught in American schools. He went as far as describing it as 'a form of child abuse'. This is Nazi territory.

However, our own school curriculum has come under political attack, especially when Michael Gove was Education Secretary. Gove wanted greater focus on 'British History' to inspire a greater sense of pride in the country. This met with widespread concern amongst teachers and academics and so far has not resulted in Governmental directives for change. Gove even talked about 'this trashing of the past must stop'.

When I was studing History for A Level back in the day we were 'forced' to read Herbert Butterfield's 'The Whig Interpretation of History'. Forced because as a teenager it seemed immensely dull. In today's climate it has been given new relevance. Butterfield argued amongst other things that what was wrong with Whig historians is that they sought to mould the past to fit their arguments about the present. He went on to say that such historians only used those parts of the past that suited their argument. I begin now to see what Butterfield was getting at. We must not let history fall into the hands of politicians, whether from The Right or The Left. History should be left to historians who will ever go on arguing with each other and thus giving the rest of us a better insight into the past.

You may well say I am over egging my point. After all, Gove was seen off and it is unlikely that the Government will try again any time soon. That may be true in relation to England but as a recent article in The Spectator showed that is not the case in Scotland with an avowedly nationalist government. Jill Stephenson in the Spectator article, 'The subversion of history education in Scotland', wrote, 'No school subject lends itself more readily to political manipulation and propaganda than history. This is especially the case in Scotland, where the purpose of history education has changed beyond recognition since the SNP came to power'. She cites the use of phrases such as 'English domination' and 'for 800 years the Scots have been struggling against English oppression' as evidence of the manipulation of young minds. The renowned Scottish historian, Sir Tom Devine, has described the Scottish school history curriculum as 'arrant propaganda'.

A thought to end with. In the Hollywood Western, 'The Man who Shot Liberty Valance', are the lines, 'This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend'.

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