History curricula, student politics, and being British

Here at Oxford, plans are underway to change the current nature of the history curriculum. The most important proposal, as far as present purposes are concerned, is to move away from a focus on British and European history towards more “global” or “extra-European” history. The motivation is to enable students to study a wider geographical range than what is currently available, and to help counter the euro-centricity that many believe disproportionately dominates the study of history.

Changes to curricula do not occur in a vacuum, but instead reflect contemporary political attitudes and fashions. Reforms proposed by the previous Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, represented a more “traditional” study of history by focusing on British monarchs and the exploits of political and military leaders. These changes were a particular response to a growing sense of unease about Britain’s cultural makeup and place in the world. This in part explains why Gove’s plans aroused so much controversy and debate at the time. Teaching of history is inextricably linked to a discussion of what values and beliefs we prioritise as a society and which we wish to impart to children. Values are powerful: they shape one’s understanding of the world and help mould one’s response to events they experience. Hence it is almost impossible to divorce a history curriculum – which should ideally be guided by education-orientated considerations alone – from political debate. The same undoubtedly applies to the proposed reforms suggested by Oxford’s History Faculty. These too can be seen as an expression of a political stance taken up in response to perceived problems of twenty-first-century Britain. Whatever problems these might be – continued racism, the perpetuation of privilege? – they clearly suggest that the solution lies in a more open, global approach to historical study rather than the supposedly inward-looking fixation on British and European culture. Indeed, it is often claimed by Oxford’s history students that the requirement to study British history means that the course neglects the histories of countries that are equally valuable in their own right. What is more, they claim, extra-European history, when it is studied in Oxford through the “General” papers, is done so from a European perspective. For example, one does not study the history of South Africa on its own terms, but through the prism of colonialism. In short, they argue that the history curriculum perpetuates archaic social attitudes that hinder the free development of all, and happily support the proposed changes.

But we should draw pause for thought, if only because any reforms can potentially have long-lasting and wide-ranging effects for future generations of undergraduates. We should question to what extent there is a tendency blindly to follow political fashions before giving due consideration to the real issues at hand. Reform, especially to the teaching of history at the oldest university in the English-speaking world, should not be undertaken lightly; it would be rash and ill-advised to take up too readily changes for the sake of conforming to prevailing political opinion, no matter how domineering, or even correct.

Furthermore, there seem to be some fundamental problems, not necessarily with the revisions themselves, but with the justifications used to support them. Firstly, arguments for radical overhaul assume that historians impose value judgements on the periods of history they choose to study. They also tend to assume that we study Britain’s past because of a belief that our history is superior to other nations’. Nothing could be further from the truth. We study British history because it is important for us to understand our own communities, where we collectively came from, and who we are. In the same way that German schools teach German history, Australian schools Australian history, or Chinese schools Chinese history, so too do we recognise the importance for those who attend British universities (who are, let’s not forget, overwhelmingly British) to learn about the history of their own isles. It helps create a shared sense of culture and values to which we can all relate and in which we can all find meaning. It is not about asserting British achievements, but about developing an inclusive sense of heritage. It is not an assertion of nationalism to want to study the history of one’s own country before those of others, but instead a reflection of its importance to that inhabitant given his circumstances and social capital.

But there are other problems with these changes. The first concerns the practicality of teaching: how is it possible suddenly to produce the reading lists, lecture materials, course resources, and expertise necessary for in-depth study? Similarly, given how recent the desire to study “global history” is, there is not the same degree of literature or knowledge available. How would undergraduate students begin to acquire a firm understanding of topics which have not benefited from decades of historical scholarship? There is also the problem of language. For us to be able to study the histories of extra-European societies would require the ability at least partially to overcome the language barrier through extensive translation of sources. Much of this work is yet to be done. Nations outside of Europe are therefore often studied from a European perspective, because largely only sources written in European languages can be understood by historians from our continent. Taking colonial South Africa as an example, our study does not preclude taking into account indigenous peoples’ views and perspectives. But, because of purely practical limitations, it is very difficult to study their history explicitly on its own terms. This is not an attempt to justify current methods of historical study, but simply to offer an explanation of why they are carried out as they are.

Finally, it seems odd that students, who apply to a given university based on what they think the course offers, seem to have no qualms about attempting to alter radically the structure of their degree according to personal preferences. Did those students who decry the prevalence of British history in the Oxford course not spare a moment during their applications to investigate the academic degree to which they would be devoting the next three years of their lives? If one were so angry about a curriculum’s tendency supposedly to perpetuate “British supremacy”, they could easily apply elsewhere.

The current debate about the Oxford history curriculum goes beyond academia; it is a manifestation of a wider unease about British culture and identity. This unease has surfaced a great deal recently, from debates about wearing the poppy, to those over flying the Union Flag. For an Oxford student to express pride in their identity is for them to be lambasted as a nationalist; not to qualify any statement of British achievement with a long list of mistakes (and there were many) is to be vilified as an apologist for empire; to express faith in the ability of Britain to be a positive force for good on the world stage is to be accused of defending the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

As wild as they might seem, Oxford students frequently make these connections, and their support for the proposed reforms to the history curriculum demonstrate their willingness to disown their cultural heritage and express disdain for all that it has given them. And in view of recent events in Paris, this sense of unease about nationhood can only grow. Meanwhile, a shared sense of who we are, and where we’ve come from, might help form a positive counter-narrative.

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