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  • William Tyler

History: The twin dangers of nationalism and 'wokism'

I have been thinking a great deal recently about the nature and the teaching of history.


We all know there is no truly objective history of anything. It is all a matter to some degree or other of subjectivity. Take, for example the life of Joan of Arc. An English historian may well interpret the story quite differently from a French historian. A female historian differently from a male. A Catholic historian from a secular.


Even dates are not as rooted in objectivity as one might think. If we go to pre-history and the story of The Neanderthals the dating is far from certain.


Even when it comes to contemporary events, from our own lifetimes, there can be more than one interpretation of the 'facts'. In a recent article in The Times, Trevor Phillips wrote,

'the Windrush story ...has produced two radically different versions of history. One is an optimistic version drawn from the testimonies of the original voyagers.....there are.....countless tales of people who made a new home in Britain, and saw a nation change from the racially divided 1950s to the largely open-minded liberal society we live in today.'


Phillips goes on to say, 'But there is another version which ....is more about the failures of the society into which they sailed.' He concludes, 'Neither version of the history is complete, though both carry essential truths. The first version shows British society as essentially benign and ready to acknowledge its errors......The latter suggests Britain is, at its core, riddled with inequality and unfairness...' In short, Phillips is arguing for a more nuanced approach.


Today, there is no historical topic in Britain likely to cause a greater clash of views than the story of The British Empire. Phillips argued, as I have said, for nuance, but when the drums of division beat the last thing people on either side wish to hear is nuance. British Empire, Good or Bad? Vote now and we shall know which side of the divide you fall on, no buts. Rather sarcastically Phillips writes, 'Much of the street theatre in Britain is led by protestors whose closest encounter with the painful legacy of Empire will have been an especially hot vindaloo'. He adds, 'Those who have African heritage might do well, to find out which side of the vile transactions in West Africa's slave ports their own ancestors stood'.


I was taught when studying history for 'A' Level that an answer to any essay question posing a good/bad division (or any division) should be tackled by arguing the case from both sides and then in conclusion coming to a more nuanced view. That advice seems to me to have stood the test of time well. Today we are faced with many divisions in our society - Remain v. Leave, Black v. White, Old v. Young, North v. South and so forth. It seems to me that although we may have different views of the world around us, for the sake of the cohesion of our society, we should wherever possible seek common nuanced ground. Now, that is not to say that there might well arise issues in the future where there can be no compromise, no nuance. Germany in 1933 is a perfect example of this. That raises the old question, of how do you defend democracy in the face of totalitarianism?


So what history should we teach in our schools? What common strands are there to our national story that are acceptable to the vast majority of the population? Nationalism is a dangerous force with which to play when educating the young; Think Hitler Youth and Marxist Young Pioneers. History teachers rejected Gove's attempt to refashion the history curriculum when Education Secretary. But, I should like to take a more recent example, drawn from France. There the question of school uniforms - yes or no has resurfaced in the light of girls wearing mini skirts, crop tops and plunging necklines to school. The Education Minister advised them to wear 'republican' dress. No one had a clue as to what he meant, and when reproductions of Delacroix's famous painting of the 1830 revolution, which finally ended Bourbon rule in France, appeared the Minister became the butt of public ridicule. You will recall that Delacroix's painting was of a female revolutionary, waving the tricolor whilst being bare breasted!


Nationalistic history can be dangerous. I think Churchill would be horrified to find 1940 being used by, not only the Far Right to justify their views, but also in the images and language deployed by the present Government during the pandemic in an attempt to create public support for their policies. Historians, indeed all of us, must resist interference in historical curricula by politicians of whatever colour.


We must likewise resist the siren calls of the 'woke' generation. Writing in The Spectator, the historian Harry Mount says of The National Trust's latest effort to appear 'woke', that is to tell the story of slavery in relation to nearly thirty NT properties deemed to have had past connections with racism. Mount writes, 'Tarnya Cooper, the trust's curatorial and collections director said, In the past, we've told probably really straightforward stories, possibly from one particular direction. We want to be able to tell more nuanced stories so that we can provide open, honest, accurate and fair assessments of places..' So far excellent. Nuance the word of the moment. But as Mount says she quickly undermines her case for nuance by adding,

'We are not doing anything more than present the historical facts and data'. Ah, my version is factual, and by implication objective, whilst yours is, by clear implication, not based on fact and is therefore subjective.


A voice of reason can be heard in a recent letter to The Times by Rabbi Jonathan Romain, 'If .... Jews today challenged the legitimacy of every public figure or historical site on the basis of their association with antisemitism in previous centuries, few would escape unscathed. Yet we do not demand their removal, or renaming. Instead we acknowledge, move on, and concentrate on whether today's relationships and policies are free of discrimination.'


As a historian, I often feel that Tennyson's words in his poem of The Charge of The Light Brigade ring true:-


'Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon in front of them

Volleyed and thundered:'


And then, in a later stanza when The Light Brigade is making its return to British lines:


'Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon behind them

Volleyed and thundered;'


It is not easy to take a place in the middle of polarised debates but in terms of teaching history it is essential. Professor Fynn-Paul of Leiden University has recently written that we must do so, 'In the name of science, fairness, level-headedness, humanity, and democracy itself'.

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