Getting the teaching of history right
A successful education system produces sceptics, not nationalists, argues LEE BUTCHER
Another week and another government minister has decided that our schools aren’t teaching our students history well enough. They don’t understand their own country and that needs to be fixed.
This time it isn’t Michael Gove but Dr Alistair Allen, the SNP Minister for Learning and Skills. In London we have a British nationalist deciding that schools need to say nicer things about Britain and its past, and now in Edinburgh we have a Scottish nationalist saying much the same thing about Scotland. The government minister and Doctor of Scottish Language has decided that our history teachers just aren’t getting it. As a result a new Scottish Studies class will be considered.
The concerns here are numerous. Firstly I question why a new class is needed. New methods in teaching and a new curriculum would be better used to strengthen the subjects we already have, including history and literature. I cannot understand why a class to itself is the most appropriate response.
We must be fair however, and note some positives. We do need to look at how we teach history in our schools; some have come to consider it a weaker option compared to maths or sciences, with number crunching pushing the skills employed in using the written word to one side. This is alarming. We also need more history and culture taught; more background knowledge of where we have come from can only be a thing. As budgets tighten and humanities are talked down, the teaching of history and literature is being squeezed. That the government are noticing there is a problem is a good sign.
On the whole the Scottish and British education systems do not too badly, but more must be done to encourage analytical and critical thinking. We need less chronology and time lines (though they are important) and more on how to weigh one interpretation against another, and how to spot blatant propaganda. It is these skills which are the main reward for the diligent history student.
Instead our political masters have decided that it is petty nationalism that is missing; that the study of the past and the intellectual tools it can offer students is not an end in itself, but that it should be used as a collective group hug in order to reassure ourselves about how great our ancestors were and thus how great we.
History does serve an important purpose in doing this, to an extent, in wider society; from film, books and television. It is the “social memory” of our society. We should be proud that our ancestors fought tyranny in Europe, led the way in science and philosophy in the Enlightenment and were part of creating the world’s oldest democracy. However, that is not the role of history in schools or in academia.
Our students are served poorly if they are not encouraged to think critically about their past. A successful democracy needs sceptics, not nationalists.
The teaching of Scottish history must not be about how great the Scottish people were and are, but an objective study of why they acted the way they did and why events unfolded as they did. That involves confronting uncomfortable truths about our past. Scottish history cannot be understood without acknowledging the episodes we would rather forget.
The union with England cannot be understood without a grasp of 17th and 18th century colonialism. Nationalists often fail to mention that the Act of Union came about as a direct result of Scotland’s failed attempt to establish an empire. If Scottish parliamentarians were “bought and sold for English gold” it was because the Scots had sunk their own gold into the disastrous Darian project, bankrupting the country. The ill-fated establishment of a colony in what is now Panama, in order to establish a through route for trade between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as the canal now does, created a financial disaster that spurred on the Act of Union. The dark side of this part Scottish history was our keenness to invade lands not our own, to confront the indigenous people and to deny them the right to their own land. These were decisions and actions taken by Scots, not forced on them by the “evil” English. The only difference between Scotland and the successful colonial powers was a difference in competency and funding.
Scottish history teaching must also confront why the Scots were vastly over represented in the ranks and leadership of the imperial armies and in the colonial administrations after union. The East India Company was known for many years as a “Scottish fiefdom” and the role of Scots in Africa during and after the division of the continent must also be addressed.
It is not just colonialism that any new Scottish curriculum must face. It is often forgotten outside of academia that much current thinking in Scottish history is not about the conflict with England, but that the dominant theme in Scottish history was the conflict between lowland and highland Scots. Much of Scottish history can be described as a prolonged civil war between two culturally very different people. While the role of England, and particularly the harsh treatment meted out in the Middle Ages by a number of English kings, must be studied, it cannot be done in isolation from the reality of Scottish medieval domestic politics at the time. The end of the conflict, with the final defeat of the Jacobites in 1745, is often referred to as an English defeat over the Scots. What is not mentioned was that the military commanders of the British forces at that battle, as well as their men, were mostly Scottish. It was a victory not of England over Scotland, but of lowland Scottish culture (based largely in Glasgow and Edinburgh) which saw itself as British, over highland Scottish culture. The conflict between England and Scotland in many ways can be seen as only a brief diversion from the long running battle within the nation.
Scotland must also be seen in context. To limit students’ study to only what occurred here would fail to understand much of what caused Scots to act the way they did. The Act of Union cannot be understood unless you ask what international trade looked like in the 17th and 18th century, and why Scotland decided to create an empire. We need to put Scotland into world history to fully grasp our past.
If the Scottish government are serious about teaching students about Scottish history, they must confront and discuss these difficult truths about our country. Students must be allowed to develop the skills to debate the competing arguments, to see the evidence for themselves and come to their own conclusions.
History isn’t there to make us feel good about ourselves; it is there to be studied and understood. The honest conclusions, good or bad, can then be used to better understand where we have come from and give us insights into where we may be going. A generation of Scottish students denied that opportunity would be an unacceptable price to pay for bad education policy.
Lee Butcher is a researcher to a Scottish Labour MP. He studied history at the University of Aberdeen and is a currently studying for an MA in Historical Research at Birkbeck (University of London). All opinions expressed in this article are his own. He Tweets as @lbutcherUK.