Dr Nora Berend

The teaching of history in schools is vitally important to how we see ourselves, and our stories, says Dr Nora Berend, who argues for a broad perspective in order to foster tolerance and inclusion.

Hijacking history for identity politics is irresponsible, because identity politics can be the most dangerous Weapon of Mass Destruction.

Dr Nora Berend

The historian David Starkey argued at a recent History Today conference that the national curriculum should include ‘a serious focus on your own culture’. This comment was widely picked by the media and was also seen in the context of Education Secretary Michael Gove's announcement that he wanted to put ‘our island story’ at the heart of history teaching in schools.

It’s my opinion that the battle for a British national history curriculum is misguided and counterproductive. A national history curriculum is supposed to unite, but in fact it can only divide. Inevitably, a centrally-imposed view of history which defines what constitutes ‘one’s own culture’ will alienate segments of any population. And, contrary to Starkey’s assertions that most of Britain is a ‘white mono-culture’, this division will not be based on skin-colour.

Such battles to impose one particular group’s nationalistic version in the teaching of history have been fought and lost in other countries. Those battles had nothing to do with multiculturalism. That, of course, won’t stop governments from trying. Yet nobody advocating a centralised definition of ‘one’s own history’ to be taught in school today can claim ignorance of where that kind of hijacking of history will lead.

Let’s take a couple of examples. Hungarians before the Second World War grew up learning about the Christian Hungarian nation: inevitably, those who were not Christians were seen as not ‘pure’ Hungarians. This resulted in the state-sponsored extermination of about 500,000 Hungarian citizens who happened to be Jews.

In Spain, the contest of opposing political parties was not only for immediate political power, but linked to their ascendancy for educational programmes as well. The contest for history centred round Castilian hegemony and the myth of Spanish reunification under Castilian leadership. Among the outcomes was the Civil War, and under Franco the banning of other languages of the Peninsula and the murder of members of local populations, for example the Basques. They were all white, yet they did not all share the same homogeneous identity.

It is possible for states to impose the teaching of a particular historical identity. But sooner or later that route may lead to segregation, exclusion, and murder.

I am not arguing, of course, that history schoolbooks alone caused these events; but they went a long way towards conditioning the population to accept that some human beings do not have rights by virtue of being human. Moreover, some of the same people who demanded a central control of identity and could not tolerate difference were behind the murders.

Some commentators, doubtless, will argue that all this is not applicable to Britain. Starkey claimed that a large part of England shares a white ‘mono-culture’. Perhaps he hasn’t noticed, but there are many white British citizens and permanent residents in the UK who are not English. I am one of them, and I started counting my own colleagues in the History Faculty who fall into that category: I gave up when I reached a dozen. Their places of origin include Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary and the USA. Nobody could say that we share a ‘mono-culture’. The children of such immigrants have a composite identity, and what they can acquire through the teaching of history in school is a powerful tool for understanding society. This understanding will come from studying how everyone’s identity is built up of many different building-blocks, and how identity changes over time even in the same place.

I would argue that the children of everyone, whether immigrants or descendants of people who have lived here for generations (which simply means that their ancestors immigrated a long time ago), need this same understanding of complex social identity in order to become responsible adults and responsible citizens. That is why it is in the state’s interest in the long term not to try to impose an identity, but to foster the ways in which everyone can make sense of the variety of our world and the many facets of identity embodied in every individual.

One might, of course, dismiss all immigrants as disruptive and take the view that they should be excluded from the national body, or at least should not influence the formation of national identity through education. I do not agree with such a view, but let’s take it as a thought-experiment.

Would the exclusion of recent immigrants create a unified body of pure Brits with a white mono-culture? Whose history would prevail? If the premise is for everyone to have their own history, how will the Welsh and Scottish versions of history be reconciled to the English one? Presumably, from the English point of view, Edward I will be a great king, and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd a rebel who deserved his fate, while from the Welsh point of view Edward will be a tyrannical conqueror and Llywelyn a hero. Similarly, William Wallace and Robert the Bruce will be villains or heroes depending on which side of the border a student attends school. Is that truly the best way to foster the identities of future generations?

One could argue that Wales and Scotland can have their own culture, and their own national curriculum, reserving the teaching of the desired white mono-culture to the English. But if we try to find the group with a homogeneous culture, where should we stop? Should Catholics and Anglicans be taught their own history, and therefore be taught separately? Should Anglo-Saxon identity be separated from a Norman one, and the descendants of each group taught about their own history?

These questions may seem absurd but they demonstrate the fragility of identity-politics. Trying to define any group’s history will involve selection, and the triumph of a particular perspective. Any historian worthy of the name knows that many interpretations of history are possible. To claim a monopoly in interpreting the past to create an exclusive identity is not an intellectual exercise, but an exercise in power. 'National identity’ is not static. More precisely, the components of the citizenry change over time. This shifting picture is not a matter of wishful thinking, but of historical development. The state can decide to turn some of its citizens into second-class ones; to impose the teaching of one ‘correct’ identity. Sooner or later, those who think in this way may start advocating the repression of other identities, because they see them in unavoidable conflict with their preferred, state-espoused identity. Therein lies the road to repression, government by fear, exclusion and murder.

The other way is infinitely more promising. Teaching history can be a source of understanding how people behaved in the past and why they made the choices they made. It can foster civic virtues and contribute to forming responsible human beings and good citizens, regardless of the individual components of identity such as one’s historical past or culture. A multiplicity of identities can coexist in a state that ensures equality and economic possibilities, and in return gains taxes and political allegiance.

Britain can be proud of its ability to include all those who, although possessing different cultural backgrounds, share the civic values of a democratic society. To ruin that and introduce differentiation based on cultural identity will in the long term be against the interests of everyone. Define the only acceptable English national identity, and many groups will start defending their own divergent identities: if these cannot be included, they will have to be separate.

Hijacking history for identity politics is irresponsible, because identity politics can be the most dangerous Weapon of Mass Destruction. As to ‘our island history’, it was a famous English poet, John Donne, who warned: ‘No man is an island’.

Dr Nora Berend is Senior University Lecturer at the Faculty of History and Fellow of St Catharine's College. She has worked on religious minorities and conversion in medieval Europe, and is currently working on a project on the formation of identity.

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