It’s time for our national curriculum to own up to our country’s past
Winston Churchill has been under fire recently from MSP Ross Greer, who has called the man a “white supremacist mass murderer”. Whilst this seems like an extreme thing to say, and puts the politician in the same category as Hitler, Greer’s statement is true. He was technically a “white supremacist” – he believed that white people were deserving of world power, and were superior to other races. His opinion on the historical control of the Native Americans and Australian Aboriginals is proof of this: “I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place”. This is a difficult thing to hear, coming from one of the most popular British figures of all time. His opinion is incongruous with our idea of him as a WWII hero, and we have been taught to respect him as if he were a religious figure. But the fact that we cannot bring ourselves to discuss anything unpalatable about Churchill points to a larger problem in our society: we are woefully uneducated when it comes to a comprehensive understanding of our own history.
For some, our national heroes are inseparable to their own identities as individuals – there are people who feel personally attacked when others make sensational statements about them, almost as if they were attacking a family member. This attitude is partly responsible for Brexit and the anti-immigration sentiment in this country; it is also the seed from which dangerous nationalist beliefs grow. If we had the opportunity to learn the good and the bad about our past (and not in a simplistic, but in a critical way), we would become more self-aware and rational, and make better decisions about our future. Germany’s awareness of their own past atrocities proves that it is possible to be proud of one’s own country, without that pride being a source of toxicity and bigotry. In Germany, their history isn’t something to berate and punish themselves with; it is taught to make sure that children grow into adults who have correct and accurate knowledge of the world around them and the historical events which have shaped society into what it is today.
We use every opportunity to gloat about our role in the emancipation of slavery, and this is an achievement to be proud of. Holocaust deniers hold a special place in hell for many of us, and we chastise the USA for their own continuous oppression of Native Americans. But we fail to cast the same critical eye over our own past, and deny students the opportunity to learn about it and understand it fully. We are oblivious to the atrocities committed during the reign of the British Empire, and the exploitation of millions of people all over the world, which formed the basis of our economic success.
This brings me to another issue: the fact that the history of BME communities is hugely overlooked. The Windrush generation are not credited for the economic growth of our country during the past few decades, and children grow up and leave school having been taught nothing about black history. The fact that Mary Seacole, an heroic black nurse and entrepreneur, has nowhere near the same level of fame as Florence Nightingale is evidence of this. This is a great shame and it needs to be introduced in schools, so that the next generation have a better understanding of all the elements that make up who we are today.
I think the knee-jerk reactions of many to Greer’s proposition is symbolic of our shaky national identity. Never before (in my memory) have we been more uncertain of our future, of our past, and of what we want; so it is understandable that nobody wants to hear about our past failures at this time particularly. But our strong distaste for unsavoury facts about our history will not serve us in any way. Instead of encouraging a one-dimensional worldview which stifles discussion and progress, our schools’ history curriculum needs to provide future generations with a comprehensive understanding of our culture.