Politicians and Historians – Leave Those Kids Alone !!

As our children grow up in an ever-faster changing world, there are those who suggest that for employment reasons emphasis has to shift to STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) in terms of focus, attention and time allocation in school learning. There are even those who favour elimination, or at least considerable scaling back of humanities subjects such as history.

However, in any country where politicians or those politically connected advocate for reducing the significance of history in schools we need to be very suspicious of their motives. When politicians aren’t trying to reduce the amount of history being learned by their citizens (so that it’s easier to feed them a version of history that suits their future political agenda) we find them alarmingly ready to pressure academics, or reward biased academics, to ‘rewrite history, so that children and young people are taught history with distorted slants.

This is alarming as children and young people tend to blindly accept and believe whatever they are taught in schools, especially what is found in text books and other academic and education material. Sadly, there is ample evidence that academics can’t always be trusted to give our young a balanced, open and fair interpretation of the past, or to encourage them to explore different perspectives on that past to come to their own conclusions about what is most likely to be the reality.

Some might suspect that this is a ‘developing world’ issue and that it only goes on in those countries where their academic systems are less ’embedded’, less established in the longer term. It is true that it’s a bigger issue when combined with extensive banning of books in those countries, as this denies people the right to access alternative viewpoints from those being spoon-fed through the education system. This has, for example, been an issue in India where we have seen this combination of distortion of history with specific ideological and political slants combined with extensive banning of books that put forward alternative perspectives.

However, nobody should be complacent in any country.. The temptations to distort, blow up or play down the significance of particular past events or actions exist in every country. I would suggest in any place where the history suggests a past that was a continuous and virtuous stream of appropriate, wise and prescient decisions is a history that has been rewritten, glossed and beautified (and should be doubted for veracity).

Some of the reasons for distorting history are quite simple to understand. National pride and hindsight can leave many countries’ historians and politicians tempted to gloss over or reduce the significance of acts in the past that are embarrassing or humiliating in the national psyche. However, even here, there can be unhealthier motives than simple hubris or pride.

We can question the over importance of national pride as a form of xenophobia and a base for the kind of nationalism that manifests in negativity towatd outsiders and ‘the other’, rather than inclinations to acknowledge equality and the essential humanity of all. None of us should ever allow the artificial man-made construct of ‘a country’ to become so significant that it leads us to justify distorting the truth of history. Countries are strange, artificial artifacts of history themselves.  One only needs to look at continents like Africa, or the Arab nations. In the latter case the UAE provides an interesting example. Throughout its past it was an area of nomadic tribes for whom the Western construct of a nation was alien. In Africa, we see vast swathes of land bisected by razor sharp boundaries that were laid down by Western settlers to agree between themselves the carving up of different plots of land to satisfy their colonial and acquisitive nature of that time. Frequently, these artificial borders cut through the lands of existing local leaders, tribes and peoples without thought, without their involvement or agreement. To fail to understand this history is to fail to understand the struggles of most of those places today to take on the expected characteristics of statehood or nationhood when their country has peoples whose origins lie in tribes that may have had hundreds of years of animosity and rivalry, whilst their own populations have been split by these artificial borders. We see an example in the Middle East with the problems associated with the Kurdish people. They have no country of there own, but are spread across the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

When I studied History in the UK, I think by and large, it was quite honest and open about aspects of the past in a lot of ways. There had been a movement in the 1960’s and 70’s to be more open, transparent and honest about things like the British role and complicity in the slave trade. However, it’s probably true that the history related to colonialisation tended to be heavily slanted towards the contribution of Britian to the countries colonised and how they benefited. There was, from my memory, for example, no mention of British mismanagement in Bengal causing famine that killed large numbers of people. In the teaching of the histories of USA and Australia there was little acknowledgement of the persecution and suffering of the indigenous populations. Some of the issues and heat generated by debate are highlighted in this recent article:

The Conversation – British history is Still Being Whitewashed By the School Curriculum

Here’s another article with further perspective on UK historical distortion:

The Telegraph – History Being Distorted by Politicians

When I moved to India, one of the first realisations I had on this subject was how certain aspects of Mahatma Gandhi’s personal life were completely erased from the history being taught to students. I nearly found myself in an embarrassing situation when I naively started discussing aspects that i was aware of from international writers on Gandhi. Seeing the blank and shocked looks on their faces I backed away quickly and retreated to safer ground.

In subsequent years it’s been intriguing for me to see the ways in which significant aspects of the country’s history are particularly rewritten to suit am agenda preferred by those committed to the doctrine of Hindutva. They tend to play down or deride the impact of the moguls and adjust other aspects related to the past (even denying evidence from archeologists). Initially, this was done in certain states that were controlled by these parties, but as they have gained more power at the centre, so they seek to promulgate these versions of history across the whole country. Today, even the interpretations and conclusions drawn about the assassination of Gandhi are fiercely fought over.

The following article from 2018 highlights that when we look at how this process happens in different countries, one thing is clear – the greater the quality of the country’s education system, the greater the extent to which people are willing, able and ready to challenge and question what they’re being told. As a result, some of the rewriting in India is blatant, unsubtle and pays little heed to the howls of horror from the learned and intellectuals – in fact, it becomes a good opportunity to portray such people as being against the nation and to undermine the respect for learning and knowledge;

Outlook India – Rewriting India’s History, Hindutva Forces Meddling With India’s Present and Future

I was motivated to write this by an article this week highlighting that the increasingly polarised and belligerent politics in the US is now manifesting in the same kinds of historical distortions for political ends, even in what is being taught to children living in different states.

New York Times – Two States, Eight Textbooks, Two American Stories

Many questions arise? Does all this really matter so very much? After all, it’s only the past and history. I believe it matters a great deal. History, as a store of knowledge should be there to guide societies in to the future and hopefully even enable them to learn from their errors, make better, wiser decisions and progress better for the good of all. Regrettably, too often, when history is being distorted it’s being done to favour one group of people over another.

There are issues in education where it’s hard for politicians to interfere, because the combined voices of educators and parents limit their misbehaviour. Regrettably, this isn’t one of those issues. Too often, we find that there are large proportions of the parents whose own political ideas, beliefs that they’ve bought in to cause them to seek and encourage those things that endorse and justify their stance. Thus, they can be the politicians’ biggest allies. It would be nice to believe that educators would raise their voices for what’s right – fair and critical exploration of history (warts and all), that enable children and young people to develop their skills of reasoning, questioning, analytical and critical thinking. Sadly, whilst some educators stand firmly on the high moral ground, we see too many who are not able to see past the fact that they are citizens in a polarised society first, educators second!

It’s a sad fact that when most of the loudest and most strident voices are leading towards extremism, including reshaping of history to create justifications, anyone who dares to speak out for moderation or balance is liable to find themselves labeled extremist, reactionary and divisive. The lemming that refuses to go with the flow over the cliff doesn’t make itself popular with its fellow lemmings.

Ultimately, what’s right goes to the very heart of what school, learning and education are for. If we believe that they are not to pander to the agenda and manipulations of politicians, then instead we must de-empasise the importance of the curriculum content that may come and go, but rather focus on the skills and competencies to develop in our students. Those who develop their skills of critical and evaluative thinking will draw their own conclusions and practice healthy skepticism about history that doesn’t seem consistent, congruent or on which different commentators have put forward different perspectives. They will also have developed the character, personal strength and resolve to be questioning of all orthodoxies, even those to which they may personally be most drawn.

 

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