Mangling British history in pursuit of British values

Mangling British history in pursuit of British values

One of the five Birmingham schools involved in the Trojan Horse scandal has decorated its corridors with a drama installation based on British values.

It shows eight scenes from British history, including the discovery of Guy Fawkes’ gun powder plot, the Suffragette movement and the golden jubilee in 2012.

In each scene St George metaphorically slays a dragon that threatens freedom and tolerance. (Schools Week)

Nationwide, schools are scrambling to tick a box in the form of the Union flag, by proving British values are inherent to their curriculum and ethos.  As with every hastily-introduced, ‘Ofsted-expect’ existential threat, not all the results are positive.  Displays like the one described above – or another I saw which combined laminated flags with Bulldog Spirit quotations from Churchill – could be acting as a supplement to a carefully-designed curriculum.  My fear is that they reflect a knee-jerk misuse of history which will limit or deform students’ understanding of the past.

I’m in favour of citizenship education.  I want students to learn their rights and responsibilities; what the powers that be may try, and the recourses available.  School should be one forum in which to consider society’s role and their role in society, what it means to be from Britain, Blackpool, Europe (and any other community to which they are tied).  My concern is with the assumption that history is an unproblematic way to teach British values and with the narrative of a glorious British past in which St George has slain “a dragon that threatens freedom and tolerance” repeatedly during the last thousand years.

Clifford's Tower 2

Clifford’s Tower, York. Image: Debbie J

Problem 1 – It’s not true

The easiest response to a narrative of Britain’s history of freedom and tolerance is to tear it apart through a thousand examples.  Heroic leaders’ achievements usually have their darker sides: Simon de Montfort may have created a first parliament, but he also expelled the Jewish community from Leicester.  Britain has seen many progressive movements for freedom like the Chartists and reactionary equivalents such as the Gordon Rioters.  For every act which reflects well on Britain – like abolishing slavery – less glorious alternative narratives can focus on the economic self-interest in moving away from slave labour, or the indentured unfreedom ‘freed’ slaves gained.  Point to as many events as you like suggesting British values are tolerance, fairness and the rule of law; I will match you with others, or aspects of the same event, suggesting they are ruthlessness, brutality and naked power.  I could enjoyable spend a day playing this game, let it rest with the assertion that a belief that British history demonstrates inherent British values is false, for there are deeper problems.

Problem 2 – It confuses

Over-simplified historical narratives deifying moments in the past obscure what really happen.  Hindsight obstructs our understanding of what actually happened; assuming Britain was always heading for freedom and tolerance makes the actions which increased our freedom hard to comprehend.  How can students understand the processes which led to democratic reforms if they assume British values would always prove successful?  If we set out to teach topics like the First World War as vehicles for British values, we will end up obscuring those aspects of the war which do not show those values.  As history teachers, we have enough to do undoing students existing misconceptions about the past; attempts to teach a grand narrative of unbridled progress will embed new (or revived) misconceptions.

Problem 3 – ‘The truth’ is out there

Part of being a good teacher – to me – is being willing to talk through the baffling mixture of things, ideas and dilemmas young people face honestly.  An essential part of being a good history teacher is showing students the differences in historical opinion which exist.  These essentials are under twin pressures: the pressure on teachers to watch their words the even greater pressure on (Muslim) students not to say a single suspicious thing.  A couple of cases this week illustrate the oppressive, damaging pressure schools, colleges and students are under already.  On Osama bin Laden’s death, our head teacher instructed teachers to close down any discussion of the topic; teachers’ willingness and ability to discuss the true nuances of history and the present in detail are under far more pressure now.

If we don’t discuss the multiple possible interpretations of British values, terrorism and freedom fighting, Britain’s conflicting history in the classroom, Problem 1 will kick in: students will find the other side of the story without our help.  Most young people have easy access to the internet, and there is plenty of evidence out there of unpalatable, shameful aspects of Britain’s past which undermine any notion that fairness and tolerance are intrinsic British values.  We can introduce young people to these complexities in the classroom, and discuss the UK’s strengths and weaknesses openly.  Or we can provide a one-sided picture and hope that they never discover they’ve been lied to, least of all by those who might wish to manipulate their attitudes intentionally.  Teachers and students must have the confidence to discuss Britain’s messy history – and the dilemmas they face today – openly and honestly.

Problem 4 – Want British Values?  Fight for them.

Belief that British history was shaped inexorably by British values – Problem 2 – leads to a simplified view of causation that seems to me to promote passivity.  The corollary of an assumption that inherent British values got Britain where it is today is that we don’t need to worry too much about where we’re going: no doubt St George will reappear, alongside Drake and King Arthur, if tolerance is ever threatened.  Freedom and tolerance are not inherent to any aspect of the British state or society; they hang in the balance, constantly renegotiated.  If we want to maintain the freedom and tolerance we have achieved, we would be best to show students that ‘British values’ are negotiated, multi-faceted and almost never universally accepted; it is up to students to reshape and improve on Britain’s present.

In short, an appeal: don’t try to misuse history to teach British values; teach history to appreciate the complexity and conflict behind Britain’s past and present.

Clifford's Tower

Text: On the night of Friday 16th March 1190 some 150 Jews and Jewesses of York having sought protection in the Royal Castle on this site from a mob incited by Richard Malebisse and others chose to die at each other’s hands rather than renounce their faith.  Image: Summoned by Fells

Coda

  1. Michael Gove’s original draft of the new National Curriculum, teaching, as Richard Evans put it, ‘The Wonderfulness of Us‘, was enormous.  The resistance from this historical community this time seems subdued, yet I’d contend the current situation makes it far more likely this narrative will become commonplace in schools than it ever was before.
  2. Properly-taught history helps us understand the rest of the world too: “We will be less bewildered by Islamic State and its success so far if we understand the Crusades”, wrote Diarmaid MacCulloch recently (£).  Not through a lazy equivalence between Christian and Muslim terror, but because an understanding of history: of the capacity for rational organisation in the pursuit of religiously-motivated ends, helps to explain both.
  3. There are sensible approaches out there which bring out the nuances in British values and contemporary politics; at West London Free School, senior leaders have taken the view that the “emergence of extremist ideologies a phenomenon that we should teach within academic disciplines such as history”.  Perhaps if we ask him nicely, Michael Fordham will share his schemes of work.

Ali Messer has written insightfully about the problem of teaching British values from a pedagogical perspective.