The past, writes poet Michael Donaghy, ‘falls open anywhere’, and it’s important that, when it does, we recognise and understand it. History is important not only to our sense of who we are but also to our capacity to engage actively and intelligently as citizens in democratic society. History and political literacy are intimately linked, which is why we ought to treat sceptically any politician’s attempt to reframe the way history is taught.
The ‘great men’ model which, until relatively recently, dominated the way in which history was taught in UK schools – and which education secretary Michael Gove is, by all accounts, keen to revive – failed most of us because it did not give us an adequate understanding the forces and events that have shaped the communities in which most of us live. When I left school aged 16, I knew a lot about the Second World War, a little about the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution, and a few key dates regarding kings and queens and the battles waged on their behalf, but I knew next to nothing about the English Civil War and the extraordinary debates and ideas that ran through it, or about the impact of the Acts of Enclosure, the slave trade, the Suffragette movement or the Peasants’ Revolt. I knew still less about the events and actions, the tensions and struggles, that shaped the town I grew up in.
The fact that our perception of the past changes and is contested makes it all the more important that we are able to make informed judgments about it and defend, if only to ourselves, our own sense of who we are against those who would deny, dismiss or marginalise it. History and, in particular, social history – history that acknowledges the experiences of ‘ordinary’ people and their ways of recording and transmitting them – is a critical part of active citizenship in a democratic society. Growing up in poor or marginalised communities – communities which are, for the most part, off the radar of the mainstream media and whose stories are rarely told, and are, in some cases, in danger of being forgotten – it can be difficult to develop a sense of pride in where you come from and who you are, still less the sense of agency and possibility necessary to make the most of one’s talents and aptitudes and change things for the better.
This was brought home to me really powerfully when I visited a social history project in Edinburgh a few weeks before Christmas (I wrote about it in more depth in a previous post). The members of the Edinburgh Social History Group I spoke to all expressed dissatisfaction with the way in which they were taught history at school. Their sense of having been short-changed grew stronger the more they discovered about the ‘real’ history of their country – from the Porteous riots to Red Clydeside, the stuff that didn’t make it onto the curriculum – and the history of their own community, which, over decades, had waged a series of creative and determined campaigns for better housing and community conditions and better local services. Their response was to develop a project which would provide a lasting record of their community’s campaigning history while reinvigorating, they hoped, the spirit of community activism, particularly among young people. One of the group’s founders, Anna Hutchison, explained:
We encourage them to be proud of where they come from. It’s not all bad. It’s changing slowly. We’ve got a lot more people involved in campaigns and activism now, and that’s through local people going into their schools, into youth clubs, and telling them how it’s done.
The Workers’ Educational Association in Scotland, which supported the group’s social history project, has really grasped the nettle on this, developing a number of similar schemes giving students a chance to draw on the ‘real, lived experience’ of their communities. The flexibility in Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence means the resources produced by these projects are now finding their ways into schools, giving young people a chance to gain a real understanding of where they come from and what forces shaped the neighbourhoods in which they live. Seeing for myself how much more meaningful history taught in this way can be, and the difference it can make to people’s sense of agency, I feel uneasy when I read of plans to remove ‘social reformers’ such as Mary Seacole, Florence Nightingale, William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano from the national curriculum in England in favour of the likes of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill. You have to wonder what sort of historical role models will be available to girls or to children from black or minority ethnic backgrounds, in particular, under this reformed curriculum – and what impact this is likely to have on social mobility.
Social history is an important component of an education capable of producing the sort of citizens who can revive and sustain our democracy. We need to be able to think critically about our traditions (I mean all our traditions) and to understand that historical interpretation is contested. History, understood in this way, can provide a good grounding in political literacy, helping us develop the skills we need to critically deliberate, and to examine and see through the simplistic rhetoric of politicians, much of which is intended to obscure and mislead (‘the mess we inherited from the last government’, to take a currently near ubiquitous phrase as an example, masks a host of ambiguities and distortions). Just as importantly, social history can give us a sense of ourselves as stakeholders in an ongoing narrative, with as much of a right to a say and as much of a chance of making a difference as anyone else. It can also remind us that other perspectives matter, help us see the world from other people’s points of view, and give us a better sense of our connections to others (all common outcomes, incidentally, of much adult education). The unpleasant and divisive language used by politicians of all parties to vilify and stigmatise the poorest (and least able to answer back) in society suggests that the development of this important imaginative capacity is urgently required.
We badly need a history fit for purpose in twenty-first century democracy, poorly served as it is (in general) both by its politicians and its mainstream media. And we need a history that is inclusive and representative; that tells the stories of all of us, not just a privileged minority; and that gives us a sense of the possibilities concealed in the official narrative of British history (history like political debate is artificially constructed and it’s useful to understand what is being excluded and why). Learning to think historically and to see ourselves as responsible, democratic citizens with a stake in society and a role to play, are crucial skills for active democracy. They are also skills that need to be cultivated across a lifetime. Political education is a lifelong necessity. Understandings change and it’s important that adults can find spaces in which to learn about, debate and, if necessary, challenge these new understandings. Projects like the North Edinburgh Social History Group show just what can be achieved and how transformative this sort of approach can be for adults and, indeed, for whole communities, providing a vital intellectual foothold in a society – a world – that is changing frighteningly fast. If we lose our sense of who we are and where we have come from, we are unlikely to have much of a sense of where we are going.