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Summer Blog 5: History under attack

I make no apology for returning to this topic which I first raised in a blog, entitled 'History in the Headlights', back in March. For access to this earlier blog merely scroll down.


A number of you have raised issues around this in more recent months, so here is a second look at the subject. Since March I have been building up a file of references and comments.


What finally spurred me into writing was a cutting recently received from one of you about Lords, the home of cricket. The cutting came from The Daily Telegraph and told of a move to attempt to get the MCC to remove all references to the great cricketer Sir Pelham Warner, including portraits of him and the renaming of The Warner Stand. The case is that Warner's family made its fortune from slavery. Warner himself, born in 1873, some forty years after the abolition of the slave trade throughout the British Empire, is therefore personally exempt from criticism, which rests merely on the fact that his family prior to 1833 were involved with slavery. The MCC enquiry found that 'Warner's family history does not override his importance to the game'. The West Indian cricketer, Michael Holding, author of a book on sport and race, is quoted as saying, 'I would not be crucifying family members for what happened 100 years ago [actually nearly 200 years ago]. That aspect I don't care about'. Neither should we. It is disingenuous to take a person out of their temporal context and even more so when it relates to matters before their birth.


The military historian, Peter Caddick-Adams, recently tweeted, 'Trying to understand history means NOT looking at it through modern eyes'. In other words, take things in their temporal context. However, in my earlier blog I nuanced this view; namely if the generally accepted, and taught, version of the past is shown up by modern scholarship to be either wrong (eg in the case of the traditional view of Roman Britain slipping into an age of barbarism overnight) or partial in its explanation (as has been the case with The British Empire taught to schoolchildren of my generation in very Victorian racist and emotional terms) then historians have a duty to put the record straight. But with the story of The British Empire, whilst referencing the exploitation of both resources and people, we also need to reference positive outcomes, such as the outlawing of the practice of sutee in India, or Churchill's speech in The House of Commons denouncing The Amritsar Massacre. Walking this tightrope between the less nuanced views on the Right and Left politically can be a difficult task, and some historians fail to break away from a polemical political analysis.


However, all historians must seek a clear objective academic path through the moral rages of the moment. They would do well to contemplate Tennyson's words in his poem, The Charge of The Light Brigade,

'Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon to front of them...'


A recent Times leader highlighted the culture wars whose impact is to distort or even eradicate our history: 'What starts in the classroom very rarely ends there. That's why the issue of Howden Junior School removing historical figures from its house system and replacing them with more popular culture figures is an issue that deserves our attention.' The Leader goes on to say, 'Removing Lord Nelson, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and replacing them with Greta Thunberg, Matala Yousafzai and Marcus Rashford [who is likely to remember him in 50 years time however inspiring he has been over the last 18 months?] is virtue signalling of the highest order. What's happening here is the erasure of British culture [well actually, English culture]'.


Culture warriors can be particularly maladroit if they come from a different culture. For example the American evangelist and politician, Rev Jesse Jackson, opined in an interview with Times Radio, 'Britain has a certain responsibility to face up to racism and change it. I've travelled across Britain and clearly there is a pattern of racism.....' The Times report on the interview added, 'He refused to say if he thought the royal family were racist, but suggested that a flaw of the British monarchy was the fact that 'blacks cannot .... be part of the Crown' - a clearly inaccurate remark both constitutionally and practically, given Meghan Markle and, possibly, given Queen Charlotte.


Neither of the above contributions are in my opinion particularly helpful contributions to this serious debate.


This culture war will simmer down in the course of time making way for a better understanding of how we address our past. Heated political and polemical arguments should not be the stuff of historians, inside or outside the classroom.


It is, however, when the past, and its presentation, clash with the ideas of the present that the greatest difficulties lie. The issue of The British Empire I have referred to above. It is an important issue to face given that Britain is such a multi-ethnic country, with many of its citizens, or their families, drawn from what was The Empire. Each society, take Britain and The US for example, must find its own way to reach common history, however difficult that might be.


I would like to present a non British example, from The US. It is not for me to pass moral judgment on how these issues should be addressed. It is for Americans to find a common history acceptable to all, but one based on solid research and not the politics of the moment.


One specific topic in current American historical debate is the defence of The Alamo against overwhelming Mexican forces. Across the world, well the English speaking world at least, all the men of my age remember the film, the Davy Crockett hats, and the songs. Today that story of derring-do has been to some extent undermined by modern academic research - most notably in the book. 'Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth' by Burrough, Tomlinson et al. The Sunday Times in a recent article wrote, 'In Texas, you have to try hard not to remember the Alamo........Now, 185 years later, they are once again at the centre of a conflict bigger than themselves: America's bitter culture war over racism and who gets to tell the nation's history. Texas is on the front line of that battle too. Last week a requirement for schools to teach that the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan had been 'morally wrong' was voted down in the Republican-led Texas state senate. The same legislative body is expected to pass a bill that seeks to outlaw the teaching of critical race theory...'


Once politicians are involved in history curricula in schools or universities, all right minded people should be on their guard. One merely needs to look at history teaching in Hitler's Germany or Putin's Russia to see where that path leads. In Britain we are seeing a growing number of Universities close down departments of history and archaeology, or planning to do so, because of what The Guardian called 'government pressure to focus on perceived high value STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) and vocational courses that typically produce graduates who earn higher salaries.'


A comment on twitter (@peteohanlon), by a father of a daughter seeking to read history this autumn, wrote, 'one of the key selling points for my daughter when she chose her degree, other than a love of history, was the premise that the benefit of a history degree was the application of critical thinking it engenders. A government that wants a supine population fears critical thought'. You don't have to accept the paranoia of the last sentence to support a view that Higher Education is about a great deal more than obtaining a job with a high salary.


The idea that education, as the British Secretary of State said, is about preparing for work, is light years away from my own higher education at Oxford in the mid 1960s. Looking back I think I was one of the final beneficiaries of an older, and as an adult educator I would argue, better, definition of the place of education in both the life of an individual and of society at large.


Two quotations with which to end. One British and one American.


George Orwell: 'From a totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned.'. Orwell added that totalitarianism demands 'the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.'


LBJ: 'Somehow the scientists always seem to get the penthouse, while the arts and the humanities get the basement.' [what a typical down to earth LBJ quote]


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