‘The Indian Mutiny’ will resurface in children’s understanding of the British empire from 2014 – a leap back in time to an age when the derogatory phrase was invented by British imperial authorities, attempting to portray the widespread 1857 rebellion as simply the revolt of Indian soldiers. As a final-year Cambridge history undergraduate, I would probably fail my finals if I used the term ‘mutiny’ to depict 1857.
But under the self-congratulatory heading ‘Britain’s global impact in the nineteenth century’, Education Secretary Michael Gove seems to want Key Stage 3 children to understand anti-colonial revolts as disobedient ‘mutinies’ under the new national history curriculum, to be finalised this September for introduction in 2014. Gove’s narrow-minded and outdated analysis paints a rosy, appealing picture of history as seen through the eyes of former British supremacy – ignoring the realities of history and of modern Britain. The children of Britain’s three million residents of Bangladeshi, Pakistani or Indian origin deserve better.
No-one would suggest that objective narratives of British history are easy, even possible. But the recent revelations about border omissions in Israeli and Palestinian textbooks show just how important the state’s storytelling role is in molding the mentality of future generations. Children simply should not grow up shaped through the two serious flaws in Gove’s curriculum: its glossy view of the British empire, and its supposition of British isolationism and consequent neglect of extra-European history.
Normans, Tudors, Stuarts and Victorian statesmen all feature centrally in a convenient Whiggish tale of ‘progress’ in British history, culminating nicely in the abolition of slavery, the Welfare State and decolonisation. The study of ‘ancient civilisations’ remains important – Greek and Roman, that is. Not the Chinese, Mughal, Aztec or Ghanaian empires.
Worse, Gove inexcusably glosses over some of the worst horrors of British colonial history; yet his first stated aim is to show “how Britain influenced the world”. Mau Mau and British-run forced labour camps in South Africa, for example, seem forgotten. By contrast, the atrocities of Nazi Germany are explicitly described as a “unique evil” – while certainly so, selecting massacres according to country seems slightly biased.Cambridge professor Richard Evans condemns the new proposals as “a Little England version of our national past”, seeming with “patriotic stocking-fillers so beloved of traditionalists”. Similarly, Oxford historian David Priestland added that “Britain in 2013… can ill afford to retreat into complacent national chauvinism”. By contrast, Niall Ferguson’s support is telling. The right-wing historian sees much of the British empire as ‘a Good Thing’, arguing in Empire that British imperial rule “made the modern world”. Ferguson advised Gove on the future of history education, and his influence shines through.
Understandably, Gove wants to provide children with a comprehensible and relatable understanding of history. In some aspects, he is on the right track: emphasising chronology and connectivity between historical events is a gaping hole in the current curriculum. ‘Great Men’ still have their place, particularly in children’s books. Other parts of the national curriculum, such as emphasis on citizenship, have been met with widespread enthusiasm.
But much global history – bar the United States – remains underplayed both in the current and proposed curricula. Under Gove’s proposals, children will approach GCSEs with an understanding of African history only through the colonial and slave contexts. They may know General Gordon of Khartoum, but won’t know Prempeh I, the Asante ruler whose polite decline of British ‘protectorate’ offers and attempts at London-based diplomacy were met by British attacks and colonial conquest. Children will know Clive of India, but will probably never have heard of his predecessor Aurangzeb, the Mughal ruler of over 100 million subjects for half a century. It saddens me that British children may take pride when learning about the empire while others see their ancestors’ history only through the colonial lens.
‘We live in Britain, so children should learn British history’, some will argue. But modern Britain is multinational. Politicians promote London as a global hub, with fewer than half its residents falling under the category ‘white British’. One in eight Britons is born outside the UK. The problems of immigration aside, multiracial and multiethnic Britain is here to stay. And its children need education – above all, to understand the basic fact that modern society is now global.
Of course, teaching children is vastly different from undergraduate history – complex issues must be adjusted to their age group, and individual characters illuminated to capture children’s imagination. But the important ideas, including the character of the British empire, Britain’s relationship with other countries and international power politics filter through into children’s views of the world. As undergraduates, we are constantly and rightly criticised for letting Eurocentric ideas seep into essays; the Education Secretary would undoubtedly struggle. If the mentality of future generations continues to be one of nostalgic analyses about our supposed global power and the beneficence of the former empire, Britain’s reputation in future international relations will be seriously damaged.