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Understanding the present through the past: History within school curricula and political narratives

Updated: Nov 21, 2018

John O'Callaghan, St. Angela's College, Sligo

When historians entered the bear pit of daily politics before the Brexit referendum to deconstruct what Britain’s history meant for its relationship with the rest of Europe, they stuck fast to the claim that their respective interpretations of the past remained unsullied by anything so crass as current affairs. Their very presence in the debate, however, as well as being another sign of Britain’s epic crisis of national identity, indicated that the profession felt it could, and should, inform decision-making. The nature of some of the contributions left no doubt that they were designed to sway voters one way or another. Brexit protagonists, meanwhile, continue to sorely test the boundaries of the continuum that glides elusively from historical narrative to political action. The past can help us to disentangle the complexities of the present but it cannot defend itself from those who are willing to take liberties with historical references. This is why the teaching and learning of history is fundamental to the wellbeing of democratic societies.

The manipulation of the past to support positions on Britain’s place in Europe is nothing new: a lack of common history was one of the factors Charles de Gaulle cited as making Britain incompatible with the European Community when twice vetoing its membership applications in the 1960s. Poisoning the Brexit referendum well were historical misinterpretations (Britain as a bastion of moderation and the continent as chief warmonger for instance) that could be used to justify either a stay or go position. Alluding to Trafalgar, Waterloo, and the world wars, David Cameron worried that if Britain left Europe unsupervised, it would descend into chaos. Inevitably, it would be left to Britain to reprise its role as saviour and to yet again restore order. Prior to the calling of the referendum, while campaigning for splendid isolation, Nigel Farage sported a tie adorned with scenes from the Bayeux tapestry (depicting the Norman conquest of England nearly 1,000 years ago) lest anyone forget the risk of invasion from across the Channel. Much of the Brexit discourse features a simplistic ‘us’ versus ‘them’ reading of history. Britain’s collective memory highlights standing alone against Germany in 1940 and there is a powerful sense of nostalgia for the imagined national community of that ‘finest hour’, whereas Europe’s war story now prioritises the need for cooperation. The island sanctuary of Fortress Britain sees a European super-state in which Germany dominates and its partners are appeasers. This self-image nourishes Euroscepticism but fails to address contemporary British problems.

While Britain does not sit comfortably beside Europe, it is remarkably at ease with its own imperial past. Recent YouGov surveys (all the more revealing for their bluntness) tell us that by more than two to one, members of the British public regard the British Empire as a good thing rather than a bad thing, something of which they should be proud rather than ashamed. Nearly half believe that colonies benefitted from British rule. A third would like it if the empire was still in place. The notion that Britain’s was a particularly benign form of empire is risible and ties in with the equally unsavoury and unhistorical sense of the British as superior to other peoples. As education secretary, prominent Brexiteer Michael Gove decried criticisms of the empire as attempts to belittle Britain. Perhaps part of the reason Brexit is happening is because Britain refuses to recognise the darkness of its imperial history: violent tyranny, psychological oppression and racism. Arguably also the narrow focus of school history has exacerbated this problem (Gove’s proposed recalibration of the curriculum to tell an even more triumphant tale of British nationalism was roundly condemned by teachers at all levels and had to be toned down and pared back). The empire is presented as just another glorious epoch between Reformation, revolution and the heroics of total war. According to Gove, leaving the EU is wise because Britain’s history is an example of what a free, self-governing people can achieve. This rationale might be greeted with raised eyebrows among people that were on the other side of that history, including in Ireland.

School history in post-colonial Ireland was ensconced in Plato’s cave for half a century. The tendency to frame national history in isolation, highlighted as a shortcoming by school inspectors from the 1920s, was still evident when Ireland joined the EEC in 1973. Such insularity allowed Irish people to reconcile themselves to contemporary economic and social woes while taking pride in the self-image it offered them of a people with a unique spirit: ‘a race that has survived a millennium of grievous struggle and persecution must possess qualities that are a guarantee of a great future’ the Department of Education told history teachers in 1934. But as Ireland increasingly embraced free trade and internationalism, history teaching became less about restoring a Gaelic state and more about cognitive training and citizenship. Rhetoric about a proud, unconquerable island race is now more likely to be heard across the Irish Sea.

At the time of writing, a welcome review has been announced by Joe McHugh TD, Ireland’s new Minister for Education and Skills, of the government’s terribly short-sighted decision to remove history from the core junior cycle curriculum in Irish post-primary schools. The foundation for the new cycle is skill development but only history teaches us how to connect the past and the present. If we were to lose this skill and the knowledge on which it rests, how would we recognise what is essentially fake history, built on the shifting sands of distortion, deception and delusion? Reminders of the democratic importance of an informed electorate sometimes come too late. The British electorate is not ahistorical; rather, what seems to be a significant proportion of its members are historically illiterate and thus open to manipulation. This makes the willingness of public figures to play fast and loose with historical references all the more potent. The political ramifications of this are manifest in the confused senses of British national identity that litter the Brexit arena. If Britain cannot confront its past, how can it face its future?

Dr John O’Callaghan is a lecturer in the Centre for Life Long Learning, St. Angela's College, Sligo (a college of NUI Galway). He is is the author of Limerick: The Irish Revolution, 1912-23 (Four Courts Press 2018).

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