History not maths needs to be taught in British schools

History not maths needs to be taught in British schools

PAUL DONOVAN suggests an alternative direction for the English education curriculum

The recent suggestion of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak that children should learn maths until the age of 18 was widely derided. But perhaps the PM just got the wrong subject, maybe it should be history.

Indeed, learning history really does need to be a lifelong process, not just ending at 18.

Historical amnesia has been a long running ailment among British people, often having devastating consequences.

The teaching of history has for many years centred on the rich and powerful, the kings and queens of England, rather than the plight of working people. It was Tudors and early Stuarts back in my own school days – then it didn’t even run as far as Cromwell and Ireland.

Recently, reading accounts of life in the early part of the 20th century, it has been revealing to learn of the struggles of working people just to survive.

The brutality meted out by a Liberal government to the suffragettes and Irish nationalists - it was striking to realise how hidden this history has become.

There was unrest before the First World War, then a potentially revolutionary situation after, with the impact of the overthrow of the Russian revolution, inspiring British, German and Irish workers among many others to look for major change.

The antecedents of the armed rebellion in Ireland culminating in the Easter Rising in 1916, is probably to be found in the Dublin Lockout of 1913. The initial conflict only ended, with the partition of Ireland in 1922, then the civil war.

If the history of this period were taught properly and absorbed, then maybe so many of the mistakes would not have been repeated during the renewed outbreak of violence, known as the Troubles, some half a century later.

Everyone should know about the botched job made of Indian independence, the partitioning on religious lines of what became Pakistan and India. The clumsy way in which the process was administered by Earl Louis Mountbatten and his team, ensuring a bloodbath ensued.

The problems caused by British partitioning across the world should be front and centre of any history syllabus taught in schools today.

Then there is the legacy of the slave trade. Again, British complicity going back to Elizabethan times. The varnished version of history has tended to dwell on the role of abolitionists like William Wilberforce and how Britain was one of the first countries to officially abolish slavery.

Less about how many of the rich and powerful today have a legacy built on the gains of slavery.

Fortunately, the work of excellent historians like David Olusoga has begun to uncover these unpleasant truths for the wider population.

It has though been the obfuscation of history down the years that has allowed the myths of Empire to become accepted narratives.

The view is still widely held that the British Empire was a good thing, a civilising force for humanity. All was well when Britain ruled the waves.

More recently this version of history had plucky Britain winning the Second World War, pretty much alone. The role of the US, Russia and countless others being relegated to the sidelines.

Sadly, the failure to understand the past has contributed to the British identity crisis. This sees many believing Britain still is a major world power, rather than a small increasingly isolated island in the north of Europe.

The world power status fiction is contributed to by such ideas as the special relationship with America. It is as though by hanging on the coat tails of the American empire, Britain can kid itself it still does rule the waves.

Incidents like Suez in 1956 should have long ago banished any such delusions, when Britain was quickly slapped down and put in its place by the Americans, following its attempted invasion of Egypt.

Unfortunately, many seem (and want) to believe this falsification of the past - it was something that the campaign to leave the EU was able to plug into. The truth that Britain was a declining country, whose power was magnified by it being part of the larger EU block, was lost. Now, Britain is paying a heavy price.

Recent Conservative governments seem keen to promote these falsehoods, regarding the history of empire and Britain’s role in the world. This has seen the strange culture wars spreading across academia and beyond.

One of the key players in this process, of course, was Boris Johnson, who seems to believe himself to be the reincarnation of Winston Churchill - the epitome of the bulldog spirit.

History is so important because it is only by understanding the past that the mistakes made then can be avoided in the future. The history of Britain and Ireland over the past century offers a perfect case study. History has been ignored time and time again, with suffering caused as a result to both countries.

A proper teaching of history, beyond the lives of the rich and powerful would do much to ensure a better informed public, ready to accept its place in the world. A recognition of Britain’s true role in the past would merit more than a little contrition and possibly some reparations but it could also result in a country, less deluded and more at ease with itself in the long run.