Our education system woefully ignores our imperial history, leaving it noticeably absent from our lower school curriculum. This week, I spoke to Dr Anindita Ghosh, senior lecturer of Indian history at the University of Manchester, concerning the absence of central historical periods, such as the British empire, from our history classes. She said: “Ignoring the empire is like ignoring the Norman Conquests or the role of Romans in Britain. It is so very integral to British society and culture,” and she’s right. Yet we are not taught about it.
I’m sure I speak for many of us when I say my lower school history education was practically caked in World War history, smothered with Tudor England and an America-centric view of the Cold War was our dose of ‘diversity’. Our curriculums ignore the fact that we once occupied one of the largest empires in history. Why do we not learn about this pre-GCSE, before studying history becomes a choice? What effect is it having on our society as a whole?
My discussion with Ghosh began with a focus on existing movements that actually are campaigning for this issue. To name just one, ‘Liber8 My Curriculum’ is an organisation that tours students’ unions and universities across the UK raising awareness.
Is this really the best approach we can be taking? As Ghosh rightly states, “it’s a start, but debate by itself is not enough.” As with any societal and cultural issue, debate and discussion can only get you so far. “There have to be some proactive steps taken on the part of the government, on the part of institutions.”
One solution she presented was getting more hires in histories of colonialism and slavery, racism and migration in our higher education system. University is where we find our future teachers, members of parliament, people who can change our future for the better. If we get people interested in a more diverse curriculum at a university level, hopefully this will translate into a move from our predominantly White European perspective in education in the future.
Following this, we discussed the effects of our current shambles of a government on the education system. Tory cuts have led British education into a state of what innumerable news outlets have aptly described as a ‘crisis’. There are many problems facing teachers these days; should diversification of the curriculum still be a primary issue? To which Ghosh replied by saying “yes” about five times in a row. Cuts and hardships to educators are, let’s hope, things that will come and go. Lack of diversification has immeasurable impacts on our society as a whole.
A repeated theme throughout our discussion was how the empire, for all its many, many flaws, provided our culture and our people with a connection to other cultures and peoples that we otherwise would not have had. Ghosh referenced jazz culture and the ‘supermarket samosa’ as prime examples. These things are “so standardized that you don’t think twice about ‘how did this arrive here? What’s the history of it?’” If we expand our education beyond the whitewashed content we are fed now, maybe we will be able to “appreciate this addition of culture and not just gloss over it.”
I followed this up with a rather more hard-hitting question, blunt and to the point: what, in her opinion, is the reason that we don’t discuss these areas of history in education? To which she promptly replied, “collective guilt.” But she went on to say, “I really don’t see why that should act as a block.” Aside from the occasional talk of reparations and compensation, as a whole “the world has moved on.”
Which led me to my next question: what was her response to the main argument for us keeping imperial education out of our schools: that we should ignore it because to discuss it would be of detriment to our national pride? She conceded, “it does bite, it does hurt” to face up to our imperial past, “but the historical truth is that modern Britain is a product of empire as much as it is a product of industrialisation. By owning up, Britain would be growing up and moving on.” And she rightly added, “by that same token, we should also deny the fact that women were not allowed to vote,” or that the Somme was such a disaster, but we don’t. We didn’t even mention the fact that Brexit has already had a suitably damning effect on our national pride, you only had to go to last Sunday’s march to see that.
We need to overcome what Anindita articulated as the “institutional reluctance” that is “dividing our histories into ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’ [thus] dividing people in our very midst.”
In Manchester alone, the Asian populace is up 14.4 per cent and continues to rise, with Black and Mixed Race residents up 8.6 and 4.7 per cent respectively. “By denying its past”, she says, “Britain continues to deny its present.”
Ghosh rightly addressed the sense of identity and ownership that comes along with historical education: “Everyone wants to own the histories they are taught, everyone wants to have a sense of belonging.” By excluding topics such as the British Empire and British (no, not American) slave trade from our lower school curriculum, we are perpetrating what Ghosh described as a sense of “alienation” amongst our growing minority populations.
To end on a slightly more positive note, Ghosh and I discussed the work that the University of Manchester is doing to tackle this issue. According to Ghosh, UoM has really “taken the lead” amongst the Russell Group community in encouraging diversification. One form this innovation has taken has been the Manchester Access Programme, which supports students from underprivileged and minority backgrounds through university.
My own degree path displays how Manchester is addressing the lack of diversity in education; since starting I have studied two modules about colonial history. But, as Ghosh says, we need to do more, and “the onus is as much on the majority community to promote integration and partnership as it is the minorities.”