Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Don't Confuse Nationalism with Our Nation's History

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Don't Confuse Nationalism with Our Nation's History

Article excerpt

Jingoism is very distinct from knowing about British history, writes teacher Robert Peal - we shouldn't let our distaste for the former stop us teaching the latter

As of this month, British history takes pride of place in the new at GCSE specification.

From now on, pupils will learn one British depth study, choosing from topics such as the reigns of Richard I and King John; the Elizabethans or Restoration England. And pupils will study one thousand years of British history through the lens of a particular theme, such as migrants to Britain.

Why is this important?

These history GCSE changes are the outcome of an intense and frequently fractious debate that dominated many headlines back in 2012, at the beginning of Michael Gove's curriculum reforms. Whether you liked him or loathed him, few could deny that Michael Gove was passionate about history. Not many politicians in this day and age would reference Pericles, Gladstone, John Stuart Mill and the seventeenth century Dutch republic, all in the same speech.

Gove made it clear that he wanted a greater emphasis on British history in the school curriculum. But when the first draft of a new history curriculum emerged from the Department for Education, there was uproar from many quarters. It was "rote learning of the patriotic stocking-fillers so beloved of traditionalists", according to Sir Richard Evans, the Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge.

In a similar vein, David Priestland, a professor of history at the University of Oxford, writes, "We are... firmly back in the land of the Edwardian bestseller Our Island Story."

The reference at the end of that second quotation gives a clue as to why Gove's reforms stoked so much controversy. Written over 100 years ago by Henrietta Marshall, Our Island Story was frequently invoked in debates over the history curriculum. For both Gove's supporters and his detractors, Our Island Story was a convenient shorthand for engaging, narrative, national history.

The problem is, Our Island Story was written in 1905. And it shows. Take, for example, Marshall's account of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, where Indian troops who had enlisted in the British army rose up against their British officers in revolt.

Marshall relates the massacre at Cawnpore, where mutinying Indian soldiers under the command Nana Sahib killed unarmed British men, women and children. Marshall writes that Sahib acted "out of the deep wickedness of his heart" in killing 300 British victims. She neglects to mention the estimated 100,000 Indian victims of the British reprisals that took place over the following years.

Such an interpretation is perhaps not surprising for a book written at the height of Empire, when "our island" ruled almost one quarter of the world's landmass. And other school history books from the Edwardian period show a jingoism of a far worse stripe.

Charles Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling's School History of England, published in 1911, is a particularly notorious example. It describes the black and mixed-race population of the West Indies as "lazy, vicious and incapable of any serious improvement". The authors were slightly more forgiving of the native people of East Africa, whom they claim "welcome the mercy and justice of our rule". …

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