Diversifying the History curriculum at school?Busting Myths

By Fariha Munim

During my third year of university, I took the carefully debated decision to enter into a career I had originally put off. This was because I grew a strongly held belief that teaching History at secondary school involved molding my students to believe stories only about British greatness.

When I began university and took one of my first modules on the British Empire, my eyes were opened to the ‘darker’, and what seemed like, unexplored archives of the past. This was the legacy of Britain’s empire, where the existence of our present today was literally built on the bones of a brutal past, which stemmed from Britain’s control of 1/4 of the world. I was outraged that none of these stories were explored, or even mentioned to me at school. Why was it that I was never taught about the Amritsar Massacre? Why was it that I was never taught about Britain’s supposed Gulag’s in Kenya? Why was it that I was not taught about the reason why Hitler’s racial theory came into existence in the first place? It angered me,that the educational system that I had succeeded in was partly through weaving my way through what seemed to be a lie told to me by the educational establishment.

I blamed the lack of diversity in the history curriculum and vowed that I could never go into such a career like teaching History and tell these ‘lies’.

Fast forward three years later, and I am currently completing the TeachFirst programme, teaching History at a mixed secondary school in North London. My original motivation to enter teaching during my third year of university was for a range of reasons but curriculum-wise, I wanted to investigate the History curriculum, and the rationale behind why History at school is constructed the way it is for many as a story of the greats, with less room for the stories of the marginalised voices who form the majority of classrooms in London.

I was surprised to find that my assumptions gained from University about the history curriculum, had little resemblance to the actual reality of History teaching as a discipline in school.

One of my first assumptions about teaching History was that it was a subject heavily politicised by the current government in power. People shivered at talk about Gove’s reforms on education, myself included. I assumed that the state of political ignorance throughout the country was to blame on the governments, past and present, for failing to talk about the nuances of Britain’s recent past starting with the British Empire.

I was wrong.

Myth 1: The government controls everything to do with History education in the country.

Historical education is complex. There is a process that has to be followed, if children are to make sense of the past in their brains. There must be coherency within the History curriculum for children. If the past doesn’t make sense for students chronologically, the entire discipline of History fails. By the time a student reaches university to study History, they have made sense of History a lot throughout their entire school career. A student is ready for progression in History- which means they are ready to advance onto the next, higher level stage which is degree level thinking. Here, it is time for students to critically think about History and its many nuances.

History in school is about deconstructing that level of knowledge, which has been gained at degree level so that an 11 year old can make that same path of progression in history education that, an 18 year old leaves school with. To do that, historical educators must be able to slowly introduce students to concepts. Some historical concepts are more suited for a child’s cognitive abilities at one stage than another.

Some historical topics are built with so much nuance that it is cognitively too much for a child to process this information, without getting the basics of a historical skill correct. For example, introducing topics such as genocide and war, or famine and war, to children in Y7 or Y8 will overload students existing understandings of history at that stage. These students do not know what it means to understand what a ‘change’ is in history properly, so it makes no sense to even branch out into anything more complex without a set route to get them there.

Other topics present a better opportunity to chronologically make sense of the past first, in order to understand the present. A commonly taught topic to Y7’s across the country is on the Norman conquest of England. After the Norman conquest, these students then chronologically progress to the next stage of historical thinking built off the knowledge they have gained with the Norman conquest. A common example could be the topic of life in the Middle Ages, followed by looking at the Tudors and so on. In each of these topics, there is an underlying historical skill that teachers are required to get students to master in order for their understanding of what ‘history’ is to increase. These skills are specific skills that are designed to help students eventually reach the level of criticality and nuance a student will begin university level history with at the end of their education.

This is not understood enough in POC (people of colour) activism circles when there are talks about diversifying the curriculum. The curriculum needs to be diversified, but at the correct time and place within school. Students can not cognitively understand without having the basics of a skill set in stone first. Without historical skills being mastered, students will not be equipped with the tools to understand the nuances diversifying a curriculum brings.

Myth 2: Children aren’t taught properly about the British Empire because it’s still as story of white men saving the day.

A common sore point for many when it comes to diversifying the curriculum are related to questions children are asked on topics such as the British Empire. From university level eyes, we look at the question of ‘Was the British Empire good or bad?’ as sometimes illegitimate. This is because for us, the question seems invalid to even ask because of our knowledge. However, if we are to just teach students beliefs that hinge on the negative of Empire (which do outweigh the positives for many), then we do a disservice to our students as teachers. This is because we have already mastered the skill of weighing up evidence as history students, and that was learnt at school. Our students though, have not. This is why such questions open up their minds to being able to debate evidence (and the other skills needed for progression). Instead of being condemned as illegitimate questions, such questions are opportunities to progress in historical thinking so our students arrive at the same level of criticality we entered university with. If that is taken away from them, then the skill of being critical in history is being taken away too.

Myth 3: History at school is always a story of white men saving the world to make things better.

The other idea of ‘progression’ in historical education has been attacked a lot, and rightly so. Why is it that at school, children are taught that things inevitably get better when the reality as we learn at university is much more jaded and complex? The answer to this is similarly, displaying a sense of ‘progression’ in history, rests on working with the existing knowledge and skills students have when they enter secondary school. Learning takes place in chunks for it to be successful. Focusing on the ‘bigger pictures’ thematically such as the Romans, Saxons, Tudors, Empire, War, Cold War and Civil Rights presents coherency for our students cognitive abilities at this stage. If there is no visible progression- we have no opportunity to challenge it at a later stage. This is all dependent on building historical skill up first.

Myth 4: Why was my curriculum at school so white?

Lastly, one thing I absolutely stood by was of the notion of how curriculums always seemed to be a story of white, middle class men saving the rest of the world. I assumed that schools were forced to teach this. I was wrong.

The history curriculum in the UK is one of the most flexible in the world when it comes to teaching. Apart from a few mandatory periods which must be taught (such as the Holocaust, a period of British history and Empire), teachers have autonomy over their departments as long as students master the historical skills they deserve to do well in their GCSES, A levels and progress onto history at university.

The question then that we should perhaps ask ourselves is not ‘why is my curriculum white?’, and blame the establishment but the question of ‘why are there not more teachers who want to make the curriculum diverse?’.

Alternative structures are present to the ones many schools use for their historical curriculums. It is more than possible to paint a sense of coherency for students with looking at the topic of migration, slavery, civil rights, interpretations of the empire, WW1 and WW2, the Cold War and then choosing GCSE options that build on this with topics on migration, empires and Civil Rights. It is not up to the establishment to decide if that is taught- its is up to departments in schools.

The need for diversity in school history can come from those who chose to enter the field, where the opportunities to teach what you wanted to be taught at school are present, but are not taken advantage of because of the lack of representation from POC in schools. A recent report by Royal Historical Society said only 11% of History students at university come from BME backgrounds. This makes the face of historical education in schools also look bleak if we are to talk about truly diversifying our historical curriculum.

I want to ask the question of if we are to truly diversify History, then should we start with diversifying those in a profession which has been stereotyped as the playing field of someone much more male, white and middle class?

Why young British Bangladeshis should also care about Bangladesh’s 2018 General Election

By Fariha Munim.

Growing up, Bangladeshi politics was a constant discussion point in our household as they were in many Bangladeshi homes throughout Britain. Two women, each adorned with simple or elegant saris, looking like they would drop dead any moment had fascinated the minds of uncles, aunts, fathers, and mothers over tea and biscuits in the evening for over 20 years.

What a wonderful blend of British and Bangladeshi.

(Yet, don’t let their dress detract you from the impressive fact that politics in a largely patriarchal society was dominated by not one, but two females from opposing sides in their bid to lead one of the world’s largest ‘democracies’ by population.)

As a History graduate today, I can’t say that I was never interested in those political debates waged at home, because I always was. However, I grew severely pessimistic about what was going on in Bangladesh as I got older. Politically, the country seemed like a lost cause and I was simply content to go on and spend holidays in luxury there over the summer like I had done since I was a child. Politics was and still seems like a lost cause in Bangladesh. The causes to exactly why, are still up for debate. Did I grow apathetic? Yes. Was I happy about my apathy? No.

From an outsider lens, Bangladeshi politics is close, and also so distant from me. This is a take into why, someone who can not even vote in Bangladesh still takes an interest into Bangladeshi politics in 2018 and a message to why younger British Bangladeshis should also be aware of the situation.

Today, millions have tried to vote in Bangladesh’s 2018 General Election. Bangladesh is the 8th most populous country in the world with over 170 million people inside its borders. This is the first time in its history that the same party could be “re-elected” into power. However, as part of election practice almost in Bangladesh, fair elections are not being waged.

Today, on the 30th December 2018, ballots have been stuffed with fake votes in the port of Chittagong minutes before the election opened to the general public.

People have been coerced to vote in ways that do not meet the standards of democratic voting behavior. The link attached here in translated English talks about how a young woman was followed inside a voting booth, is coerced to vote for the ruling Awami League which is defined by a symbol known as a ‘nouka’ (boat). The follower eventually moves aside but can see what party the woman voted for, and publicly then proceeds to tell her in front of other public voters that she did not do the right thing by voting for another party. This is a micro-aggression that has happened in bouts up and down the country. Yet, the effects of such undermining only serve to create a sense of oppression.

Communications inside the country surrounding election related covering have been banned until after the vote in the hopes to stop the spread of ‘fake news’.

Many views from British Bangladeshis are that Bangladesh works on a system of corruption that is suited to Bangladesh. Yet, for the educated middle and upper classes, this is becoming increasingly challenged as a way of governance. In Bangladesh, these are the groups that have traditionally led the way for active change in the past and have been shunned for it. Shunning these groups was used as a colonial tactic by Pakistani military authorities during the 1971 War of independence where student groups, doctors, professors, teachers and journalists were murdered on the grounds of Dhaka University.

People are not settling for anything less than democracy as a result of being educated more and more on the values of democracy preached in Bangladesh’s constitution and held up in the curriculum as a reference point of good governance.

The least I can do, from my privileged position as someone who can sit in the comfort of her own home without fear of prosecution or arrest, is to speak freely about the situation of a country so many people my age want to see change for.

1/3 of Bangladesh’s population is of between 18–35, with 18 being the voting age. Bangladesh has achieved a youth literacy rate for the ages of 15–25 of just over 87% which means that the language of democracy is well within bounds to be understood. This is a major reason as to why we are seeing such outrage as democratic expectations are not being held yet believed by so many as an achievable end Bangladesh can achieve.

People are being arrested for what they post online. Freedom of speech has been tampered with on severe scales. People are being coerced mentally to vote in specific ways. The violence on streets has not been explored here, because this is a common occurrence in Bangladesh but should really take us all with shock like if it happened in Britain. Younger Bangladeshis want change, and as an ally, the least we can do is support them achieve their goals.

Had I been born and raised in Bangladesh, I would not be writing this with such boldness that I am now. This right to speak freely should never be seen as a privilege but as a right. People are being denied this, despite believing in its inherent worth — they are wanting the world to see, so the least I can do?

Give Bangladesh the attention that I have the voice to give. So can you.

BrAsians: Looking Beyond Culture Clash

By Aisha Mazhar.

The history of South Asian migration to Britain begins during the colonial period when India was a British colony; a trickle of South Asian students, sailors, governesses and housemaids settled in Britain. The most significant waves of South Asian migration were following the Second World War when Britain was faced with labour shortages; the partition of India and the expulsion of South Asians from Uganda. Today the South Asian diaspora inBritain represents over 3.9% of the population, amounting to just over 2.3million people according to the 2001 census.[1] Despite the historical lineage of the South Asian presence in Britain, the South Asian experience has often largely been overlooked or confined to the periphery of Britain’s national narrative. If the South Asian diaspora has been the subject of interest, it has been analysed through tropes such as ‘culture clash’ informed by categories of analysis which overwhelmingly focus on religion, culture and tradition. Diasporic identities according to cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, ‘are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference’. Despite the hybridity and adaptability of South Asian diasporic identities, they have been portrayed as static, steeped in values seen as distinctly ‘other’ in contrast to western,‘British values’. Through a variety of different cultural mediums, South Asians have rearticulated what it means to be British by accommodating, re-interpreting and fusing strands of various cultures, experience and identity. The director Pratibha Parmar, aptly stated in regard to the South Asian diaspora, ‘we have been changing the very heart of what constitutes Englishness by recoding it with our diasporic sensibilities’. [2]

Image credits: National Army Museum 

BrAsian; The term in some ways, captures the essence of Parmar’s articulation that the South Asian diaspora has ‘recoded’ Englishness in certain ways. BrAsian dispenses with categories which stress the nation or ethnic minority framings of identity. Both ‘British’ and ‘Asian’ are accommodated in the term but not left unaltered; they are fused to create something new altogether. The term ‘BrAsian’ was introduced in A Postcolonial People; an anthology which explores the multi-faceted experience of British South Asians.[3] The term also stresses the need to re-narrate the South Asian experience, not on the basis of national identity but with an understanding of the exchanges and nuanced experience that ‘BrAsian’ implies. Above all else, ‘BrAsian’ is a means of illustrating that identities can seldom be decomposed into neat categories; It demands looking beyond the notion of ‘culture clash’, which fails to account for the richness and multiplicity of British South Asian identities.

Credit: Peter Nicholls, Reuters 

One way of engaging with a more nuanced understanding of British South Asian identity, is to provide platforms for people to tell their own stories and experiences. Cultural mediums, such as art can be useful and effective modes of expression, which can capture the multifaceted nature of identity. A number of British South Asian artists have done just that. TheSingh Twin’s, are a British artist duo comprised of sisters, Amrit and Rabindra Kaur Singh, their work explores themes of identity and cultural prejudices amongst others.  Upon first glance, the Indian influences in the Singh Twin’s painting EnTWINed are most apparent; It is painted in the style of a traditional Mughal miniature and features important Indian historical figures such as Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose and Sophia Duleep Singh. Yet upon further inspection, there are very clear British influences evident throughout the piece in the form of landmarks and cultural references. In fact, the painting itself is a reinterpretation of the Victorian painter, Nelson O’Neil’s paintingsEastward Ho (1857) and Home Again (1858). Eastward Ho depicts British soldiers boarding a ship bound forIndia to quell the ‘Indian mutiny’; Whilst, HomeAgain portrays the return of the soldiers having quelled the ‘mutiny’.  EnTWINED subverts O’Neil’s narrative of courageous British soldiers’ participating in supressing the rebellion of 1857; This time, the heroes are those who fought for Indian independence. The painting further features references to both historical and contemporary figures and motifs; the twins themselves are illustrated, wearing the Scottish tartan alongside shalwar kameez. Entwined is the artistic manifestation of BrAsian; synthesising both British and South Asian history and culture, to produce a nuanced piece which unsettles traditional narratives and celebrates the influence that SouthAsians have had on Britain.  The twins have asserted their ‘right to define our own culture and artistic individuality in a way that is meaningful and true to whom we are as British Asians’.[4] When British Asians are given the platform to tell their own stories, perhaps we will eschew reductive narratives which seek to posit a narrow and selective definition of what ‘integration’ and ‘British’ looks like. 

[1] http://www.movingpeoplechangingplaces.org/migration-histories/south-asians-making-britain.html

[2] E. Ann Kaplan, Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film and the Imperial Gaze (Routledge, 1997), 20

[3] N. Ali, V.S. Kalra, S. Sayyid eds., A Postcolonial People: South Asians in Britain, 2005

[4]  http://www.singhtwins.co.uk/INSPIRATION.html

Why Decolonise? Are white, male thinkers no longer important?

By Thahmina Begum.

What a bore, right? Just another self-righteous, brown student demanding special treatment and is on a mission to eradicate whiteness and though she complains about the corrupt, greedy West, she still chooses to live here. This is obviously (partly) incorrect. Those who interpret ‘decolonise’ as synonymous with erasing white people or, in the context of academia, removing the work produced by upper-class, white men, are clearly part of the bigger problem. This issue of ‘decolonising’ syllabuses has gained more prominence and backlash in recent years but one of my first interactions with it was this particular article. Gopal, so eloquently, put my thoughts into words when she speaks out about not only the lack of diversity in the types of thinkers that university curriculums consist of but also this assumption that Western-born knowledge is universal and the centre of all valuable wisdom.

“Decolonising the curriculum is, first of all, the acceptance that education, literary or otherwise, needs to enable self-understanding. This is particularly important to people not used to seeing themselves reflected in the mirror of conventional learning – whether women, gay people, disabled people, the working classes or ethnic minorities.

Gopal goes on to say:

“Knowledge and culture is collectively produced and these groups, which intersect in different ways, have as much right as elite white men to understand what their own role has been in forging artistic and intellectual achievements.” 

Now, some claim that incorporating more thinkers of colour, to ‘diversify’ the syllabus, will decolonise university modules. But I don’t think this is enough to develop a broader and in-depth analysis of the complex structures and intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class and ability in literature and political thought. An educational experience goes beyond just the module outline and encompasses the values and knowledge learned and deconstructed and play a crucial role in validating social and political institutions. Therefore, this is about more than just adding one or two writers of colour into a lecture; more importantly, this is about moving beyond the Western canon, particularly in political thought.

In other words, if you teach a curriculum and it consists of only the work of white males, this would undoubtedly perpetuate the incorrect idea that knowledge is inherently Western. This further exacerbates the false claim that Western values and its philosophies are applicable worldwide and gives the impression that there is a general identity or history that we all share. This neglects and undervalues strands of literacy that are produced in other parts of the world and, as a result, post-colonial thinkers are overlooked or seen more as a counter-argument to mainstream literary work, rather than part of the main argument itself. This division in whose contribution is valued is unsurprising since throughout intellectual work, historians in the global South have continuously needed to refer to events and publications on European history for validation whereas European historians produce their work in obliviousness of non-Western history without having the quality of their work questioned.

The absence of thinkers of colour is too often considered a norm and left unchallenged and by continuing to teach academic literature in this way, we are maintaining this Eurocentric framework which is not only limiting but is also an inaccurate way to learn history. This Western canon, for instance, teaches political theory in a way that ignores the importance of race in determining your socio-economic position and therefore such theories exclude the experiences of BME people. In his book Racial Contract (1997), Charles Mills criticises the ‘social contract’ that is created in European societies, arguing that it is intrinsically racist since it validates and encourages white dominance over so-called subordinate populations. He insists:

[The social contract] “is always differential privileging of the whites as a group with respect to the non-whites, the exploitation of their bodies, land, and resources and the denial of equal socio-economic opportunities for them” and “all whites are beneficiaries of the Contract, not a contract in which non-whites can be a consenting party.”

Such raceless notions that are ruling political theory and works of literature will first need to be acknowledged and critiqued to expose the real character of our world and the corresponding historical deficiencies of its normative theories and practices. For instance, one example of this Eurocentric, raceless model of political thought is evident in the work of Edmund Burke. Burke, in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) puts forward his stance against the abstract liberal ideas of human rights and natural equality that the French Revolution was established upon. He believed any attempt to build a new society based on such non-concrete concepts is harmful since society itself was a complex structure that had been sewed together by ancestral traditions. This belief in preserving traditions to support the fragile nature of society and his view of politics as an empirical science, based on past wisdom and experiences, meant that Burke was critical of revolution and believed it must always be the last resource of thinking. My intention behind mentioning his view on revolution is to portray how Burke’s position is one of privilege as a beneficiary in the status quo and therefore he can afford to sustain the very traditions and structures of society that placed him at an advantageous position. Truthfully, while Burke may have supported the rights of a ‘legitimate’ rebellion, he upheld the authority of Empire and cherished the rights of British imperial sovereignty.

I compare Burke’s conservatism with Frantz Fanon’s argument for revolution and the need of violence to overthrow the exploitative nature and psychological inferiority of the colonies, to exemplify how traditional disciplines within political thought and philosophies of European Enlightenment were inherently ignorant towards understanding the societies of the colonised nations. It was common for European colonisers to sermonise this enlightenment humanism to the colonised, while simultaneously denying this in practice. For thinkers like Fanon, complacency in existing conditions was not an option. His book The Wretched of the Earth (1961) is a summation of his experiences of colonialism and provides a synopsis as to how race is a primary axis of oppression and inequality and is linked to other intersections such as class. Fanon even critiqued Marx and Engels’s trajectories of capitalism and revolution as focusing largely on class and as inconsiderate of race:

“Looking at the immediacies of the colonial context, it is clear that what divides this world is first and foremost what species, what race one belongs to. In the colonies, the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is effect: you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.”

To redefine the scope of political theory yonder the occidental, many comparative political theorists argue, and I agree, that this necessitates a reflection upon the status and meaning of political life as not restrained to a geographical setting but in a global arena.

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Image credits

Though academic curriculums traditionally consist of white male scholars, when feminist theory is discussed, it is common to explore the work of liberal, white feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, particularly A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). Wollstonecraft, despite her thought-provoking and important ideas on the civil rights of women, like many Western thinkers that overshadow political theory and literature, she does not consider the importance of race, or even class, in her philosophy. Wollstonecraft simply believed that women should not be excluded from political or civic employments as this undermines morality and natural rights. However, her stance was confined to middle-class women, since she regarded them as in the “most natural” state (that is the least corrupted by either wealth or poverty). But this class of women tended to be predominantly white. Therefore, by pioneering Wollstonecraft’s work as the main text within feminist political thought, the conversation disregards the experiences of non-white and poorer women.

Black feminist, bell hooks criticises this very framework of understanding and teaching feminist theory; she disapproves of Friedan’s Feminist Mystique being heralded as having paved the way for contemporary feminism.

“Like many white women who dominate feminist discourse [and] articulate feminist theory, Friedan has little or no understanding of white supremacy as a racial politic, of the psychological impact of class, of their political status within a racist, sexist, capitalist state.”

hooks claims that Friedan’s exclusionary feminism saw victims of sexism as college-educated, white women, “who were compelled by sexist conditioning to remain in the home” and these “specific problems and dilemmas of leisure-class white housewives were real” but were not “political concerns of masses of women [who were] concerned about economic survival, ethnic and racial discrimination.”

I believe this to be very similar to issues surrounding Wollstonecraft’s feminist discourse, since her insistence on allowing women to work neglected the experiences of non-white and poorer women who worked labour-intensive jobs and did not have the privilege in choosing to remain at home. Like most traditional literature which perpetuate a false universal identity that we all share, a central tenet of conventional feminist theory is the proclamation that ‘all women are oppressed’ which implies that there is a common experience. However, in reality, and throughout history, factors such as race, class, sexuality and religion have created an assortment of experiences which define the degree to which sexism oppresses individual women. Feminist theory and more female thinkers do indeed need to be incorporated into the discourse as a part of the decolonisation process. However, the aforementioned points must be taken into consideration, in order to successfully do this. Past feminist refusal, as seen in Wollstonecraft’s philosophy, to draw attention to, or even attack, racial hierarchies have not only repressed the relation between race and class but have reinforced white supremacy. Therefore, it is imperative that, when studying thinkers like Wollstonecraft, it should not be assumed that her feminism is applicable to all women, but rather an understanding that intersections, such as race and class, are prevalent through the study of non-white feminist theorists.

Evidently, this decolonising process in academia is beyond just incorporating a diverse range of thinkers. It is about disposing the notion that Western history is shared globally and accepting that there are significant intersections (race and gender particularly in this piece) that need to be included and taught in academia. This should not be interpreted as an attempt to eliminate the work of white, male thinkers but an acknowledgement that non-Western thinkers are not mere counter-arguments of the main conversation. Rather they should be perceived as part of, and integral to, the main discussion within academic studies.


Header image credits: Mike Hutchings/Reuters