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Is education ignoring Britain’s colonial past?

The British Empire: a lack of discussion from all perspectives? Source: Wikipedia.

By Alys Hewitt

The past week has seen Jeremy Corbyn announcing plans to establish an Emancipation Educational Trust, which would use school programmes and field trips to teach pupils about the legacy of Empire, colonialism and slavery. His statement has sparked a fresh debate regarding whether or not we should be teaching future generations about the more unpalatable aspects of British history. This is ever relevant in a Brexit-era landscape, where there seems to be an increasing nostalgic desire to relive our former ‘greatness’ as a nation. But many seem to forget the human cost at which Britain’s ‘greatness’ came.

Throughout my education in secondary school history lessons, we were taught such topics as Britain’s victories in the First and Second World Wars, the establishment of the NHS and the introduction of votes for women – all things to be undoubtedly proud of as a nation. This was contrasted with extensive examples of brutality elsewhere, such as the prevalence of slavery and racism in America and the horrors of Nazi Germany. It is of course important to maintain this outward-looking perspective; however, school curriculums seem reluctant to look back upon our country’s own flaws, as the role of slavery in Britain and the violence of imperialism and its exploitation of other nations was largely overlooked. Very rarely did I see the country’s past through the eyes of the oppressed and of minorities, and I believe that my educational experience would have been greatly enriched through learning about this.

In light of Black History Month, Corbyn affirmed the need to discuss the impact of black Britons and other minorities upon our history and culture, declaring “black history is British history”. If this was instilled into us from an early age, our society may become less entangled with polarising notions of what is British and anti-British, and thus more inclusive and welcoming. All too often history prioritises the voices of the powerful and ignores those that have been systematically marginalised, which can distort our view of events.

Also embedded in this debate is the neglecting of regional histories; in Wales, for example, we are taught mainly through the filter of British history – which more often than not is centred around the history of England. Should Welsh identity and culture be taught more widely? Just as erasing the deep-rooted legacies of minority cultures does, the lack of conversation surrounding the intersection of identities within Britain perpetuates a very homogenised, one dimensional and polarising view of what it means to be British.

This is not about promoting shame over pride or peddling anti-British sentiment, as some hard-line patriots would argue; it is about refusing to romanticise the past glories of this country that we so vehemently cling to to this day. We need a nuanced debate and varied understanding of issues, and without giving future generations a well-rounded education that touches upon the good, the bad and the ugly sides of our past we are at risk of losing this. If we are denied this education, how are we to move forward and to think critically or learn from the mistakes and mistreatment of the past?

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