Battle of Ideas #1 – History Wars

This was my first year at the Institute of Ideas annual event, the Battle of Ideas. I took part in the History Wars panel alongside Nick Dennis, Kwasi Kwarteng MP, Frank Furedi and Sean Lang, with the rather brilliant Helen Birtwistle chairing.


I think Nick Dennis’s description of the session as an enlightened conversation is fair. While we had much in common, we still came at it from different angles I felt that the audience asked pertinent questions about a range of issues. I do think there is the will to improve the teaching of history and we need to make a concerted effort to ensure that historians and those with a genuine passion for history defend it as a subject and not merely a means of achieving other goals.  I don’t think my memory can do the whole thing justice so will post the sound cloud of the debate when it goes live.


Below is the transcript of my five-minute introduction:


Humans are pattern seeking and so attempts to draw parallels between current and past events comes naturally. It is simply part of our DNA to make such comparisons.


What is interesting and concerning is that some invocations of history are not the basis of debate or discussion, but a means to prevent debate altogether.


Having worked as a primary teacher for ten years, I would say that educators and the education system bears some of the responsibility for the current misuses of history.


When knowledge is elitist, ignorance becomes a revolutionary act. The line between education and indoctrination has been blurred by teachers who believe they belong to a priestly class, ordained by their left-wing teacher training institutions, and imbued with a sense of purpose based on curing social ills rather than educating.


In such a climate, it becomes easier to justify cherry picking historical interpretations and evidence.


Carter G Woodson believed that the introduction of Negro History Week in the US was the start of a journey to ensure that both black and white contributions were recognised as part of American history. It was an attempt to expand historical knowledge and add to what already existed.


The same cannot be said for those who claim to be his heirs in either the US or the UK. My time teaching in London brought this home to me. Black History Month and offshoots such as Rhodes Must Fall and Why is My Curriculum is White? are not about history, but about power. Self-esteem not enlightenment. Self-deception not self-awareness.


The peddling of ignorance in the form of conflating histories of different nations – the US and the UK, in particular, is what leads to a situation where a person on a Black Lives Matter rally in Manchester was filmed bemoaning Martin Luther King’s dream not being realised. It’s shocking that he didn’t understand that MLK was calling for changes in another nation and that the organisation he was marching for opposes much of what King stood for. The split in the civil rights movement is something which most resources for Black History Month gloss over. I find it hard to believe that so few have called out or debated what is glaringly obvious – that the black power movement seeks to promote their own revised and repackaged version of Linnaeus’s racial classification.


One website, which the Historical Association links teachers to for materials, states clearly that schools should be aiming to teach black children, in particular, to construct accounts of history that they can be proud of. This has nothing to do with history. You cannot expect the past to solve your self-esteem problems in the here and now. Neither should adults be allowed to indulge themselves at the expense of the education of the young. Of course, white liberals lap up these demands as it seems to give them an outlet to engage in masochistic self-flagellation, claim the moral high ground and all without examining their actual beliefs or conscience.


While some may simply be paving the path to hell with their good intentions, others are actively promoting their ideological stances under the guise of “radical history”. I recently read one such account which implies that the happy-go-lucky Indians were getting along just fine under the Mughals and then the nasty British came along with their capitalist beliefs, where they did nothing but ill with evidence deliberately selected to prove this point of view.


At best this is a form of overcompensation, which leads to accounts of history that are just as stereotypical and patronising as the accounts they seek to replace. Both at home and at school what Indian and colonial history I was taught was far richer and an attempt to help me understand the complex interactions between the different groups. There is something wrong if the accounts being taught and which are being called for to be taught today are regressive in comparison to what I taught 30 years ago.


At worst, this kind of ideologically-driven teaching of history is an attempt to nurture and encourage conflict and grievance mongering. It is no surprise that we have an immature generation of social justice warriors insisting on avenging the past. This was surely the intention of some within the education system in the first place. It’s not just historians but moderates from all groups who need to protect the freedom to teach history as honestly as we can.


The fact that no one is neutral does not mean that there is no difference between a person who is self-aware and can cope with the strengths and weaknesses of their ideas as well as the evidence that counters their preferred ideological stance, and those who are outright liers and propagandists.


The past is the past; it does not care about you or your feelings, and we just have to learn to live with that. At a time when we could be piecing together history from a wider range of sources, expanding scholarship and understanding the complexities of the past, we need to actively resist attempts to misuse and limit the teaching of history.