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The Culture Wars: School History – a New Battleground

As the Government considers well-meaning but dangerous changes, which threaten the excellent school curriculum in history, David Abulafia argues that historians must beware of critical theory and its attack on truth.

The so-called culture wars have made it plain how important it is to maintain a responsible approach to the study of the past in both schools and universities. Historians are used to confronting myths about the past, whether they consist of anachronistic assumptions about the aims of Magna Carta or romantic beliefs about the voyage of the Mayflower.  Now, though, these debates have reached a new and dangerous level, as the study of the past is turned into an exercise in moral disapproval, and judgment is passed on figures such as Francis Drake and Horatio Nelson according to ethical criteria espoused by some (but by no means all) citizens of our own society. Needless to say, these are not the criteria that would have been applied by Drake or Nelson, or by their contemporaries. Simplistic generalizations infused with radical ideology abound, concerning issues such as the economic impact of slavery on the Industrial Revolution.

The main ideological framework is derived from what calls itself ‘Critical Theory’, although it is neither critical nor a theory – for it is presented as absolute certainty rather than debatable theory, and so far from being critical it permits no debate about its assumptions. This is most obvious in the area that impinges directly on the study of history, ‘Critical Race Theory’. If Brighton and Hove Council has its way children as young as seven are to be exposed to Critical Race Theory and taught about the ‘white privilege’ supposedly derived from 500 years of colonialism, a secular version of Original Sin with the complication that there is no process by which it can be washed away. This is not education; it is indoctrination.

Historians feel embattled at the moment, since this outlook has become all-pervasive in the age of identity politics. Feelings trump facts. I only need to quote the words of a member of the royal family now living in California, presumably recast by his ghost-writer: ‘Whatever the cause, my memory is my memory, it does what it does… and there’s just as much truth in what I remember and how I remember it as there is in so-called objective facts.’ For in some versions, influenced by frequently incomprehensible French philosophers from the Left Bank of the Seine presumably unknown to the Prince, there is no real past; everyone has his or her own valid version of the past. As Sir Richard Evans has pointed out in his book In Defence of History, this approach opens the door to Holocaust denial and other mendacious ways of describing past events.

The study of history is at risk not from lack of attention to it so much as excessive and distorted attention to it. As Tom Stoppard has remarked, there is ‘my truth’ and ‘truth truth’. The study of the past has to be ‘truth truth’: it must be faithful to the evidence, while remaining open to a variety of interpretations where matters are in dispute, and it must remain uncontaminated by current political ideologies. Genuine objectivity is more than any individual historian can achieve, for we are all influenced by our upbringing and may find it hard to shed deep convictions about the nature of society. But this certainly does not mean that we should abandon our attempts to strive for objectivity. The past is real: those things really happened. The past is sacred: it is not our task to tamper with it.

All this has considerable bearing on the question of curriculum reform. The aim of the current curriculum is to provide children with a connected account of the history of the country in which they live. It focusses on key individuals, recognising the role of human agency in history. It places in context key events, considering their origins and impact – a case might be the Glorious Revolution of 1689 – and not just single events but gradual processes, such as that by which the franchise was gradually extended across all social classes and to women. The intention was to present all of this in a dispassionate way, free of a political message. Another central feature was the strong insistence that knowledge is required before methods (or ‘skills’) can be learned and applied. From that point of view, even learning a date sheet is valuable, because it provides a chronological framework and a sense of the scale of the past. The current history curriculum provides a flexible framework, and it is hard to see why it needs to be re-organised.

*This blog was prepared to mark publication of Politeia’s History, Whose History? The Battle for the School Curriculum, by David Abulafia, Sheila Lawlor and DH Robinson.

Professor David Abulafia FBA

David Abulafia is Professor of Mediterranean History at the University of Cambridge and Papthomas Professorial Fellow at Gonville and Caius College, having previously chaired the university's History Faculty. His publications include The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (updated, 2014) and The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans (2019), which won the 2020 Wolfson Prize, while his Politeia publications include Triggering Article 50, Courts, Government and Parliament (2017) and History in the Making: The New Curriculum: Right or Wrong? (2013).

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