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The history of the British Empire is not being taught

Our education system ignores a difficult and bloody period of our history, leaving us ignorant about our place in the world today.

By Jonn Elledge

There’s a meme, showing a cuddly dog next to a terrifying, giant snarling one, labelled “The Brits in British History Books” and “The Brits in Every Other History Book” respectively. It’s fair, but also kind of misleading, I think, because it gives the impression that the British education system is still teaching British kids that the British Empire was just spiffing. But it’s not 1890, and that is not, best one can tell, what is happening. The British education system is just ducking the issue entirely.

This sounds like a joke, but I promise that it’s not: it is genuinely possible I learned more about imperialism from Doctor Who than I ever did at school. There’s a period of the show in the early 1970s, when the production team, like the country they were living in, started fretting about Britain’s place in the world. So suddenly there are stories about the rise and fall of the Earth Empire. It is largely an economic venture which gives terrifying amounts of power to exploitative corporations, which oppresses its subject populations and in which a lot of other made-up things are extremely subtle allegories for depressingly real ones. Remarkably few of those things actually came up at school. 

Neither did, say, the partition of India, which I first learned about from Goodness Gracious Me sketches. The scramble for Africa did, a bit, but only in the context of European power politics in the run up to World War I. African countries, like dreadnoughts, might as well have been tokens: what any of it meant for the people of Africa was never discussed.

I don’t think I ever had a single school history lesson that concerned anything that happened between the execution of Charles I and the rise of Otto Von Bismarck. Rather a lot happened in the two and a bit centuries that we skipped; much of it, I gathered from Eddie Izzard routines, involved nicking other people’s countries. The thought occurs that the decision to omit the period about which liberal Britain feels most guilty was not a coincidence.

None of this seems to have been unusual. When I asked friends (well; Twitter), I found that most of those whose schools did cover the empire in any depth did so at GCSE or A-level – a point at which most kids had stopped studying history at all. And while some schools may have taught classes on the Atlantic slave trade, this was sometimes merely a necessary precursor to talking about Britain’s role in its abolition. That was certainly more likely to come up than the links between the slave trade and imperialism, or the role its profits played in shaping cities like Bristol and Glasgow, or the possibility it may have funded the Industrial Revolution. Not only don’t we talk about what the British Empire did to the world; we don’t talk about what it did to Britain. 

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And because we don’t want to talk about empire, we talk surprisingly little about much else that was happening in the 18th or 19th centuries. Sure, those years were critical in terms of shaping both the country we live in and the world today. But on the other hand they’re a bit embarrassing, aren’t they? Best stick to the Tudors instead.

I don’t really want to blame schools or teachers for any of this: there’s a lot of history, and remarkably little time to teach it in. The National Curriculum touches on Empire, but it touches on many other topics too: in key stage 3, the bit taught in years 7 to 9, the government says that pupils should “extend and deepen their chronologically secure knowledge and understanding of British, local and world history”. Even leaving aside the baffling question of what “chronologically secure knowledge” might be, that means cramming 954 years of the past in two or three lessons a week, and still finding time for a local history study, too. Teachers inevitably end up picking and choosing. Can you blame many of them for staying away from a topic that’s going to be controversial and difficult?

But the result has been a vast and widespread ignorance about our own past. It means a vast asymmetry of historical understanding, in which people in Ireland or other countries can spend years learning about centuries of violent oppression, only to come here and discover nobody remembers any of it. It means the persistent myth that Britain stood alone against fascism during World War II, which somehow ignores the fact it was backed by the largest empire the world had ever seen at the time. 

It means that, because we were the goodies that one, specific, time we have no sense of the atrocities we may have committed in the past – or how easy it would be to end up on the wrong side in future. (That’s without even getting into, say, Churchill’s role in the Bengal Famine.) It means that racists are never confronted with the mindblowing irony of their whining about foreigners coming over here and nicking our jobs. And it means we have no sense of how Britain and its history are perceived around the world, or what this might mean for, say, trade policy. 

It’s possible to educate ourselves: to fill in the gaps in school history lessons off our own backs. We can, but not everybody will. We should. But we shouldn’t have to. We should have been taught.

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