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.

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26 thoughts on “Getting the teaching of history right

  1. How many Scottish school children are taught anything at all about, for example, the Enlightenment at present? I suggest very few. They need to know what their history is before they can start to analyse or criticise it. They need to know what their cultural heritage is before they can evaluate it.

    Does it never occur to people like you that Scots might latch on to a Braveheart view of history because they haven’t been taught anything else?

  2. Two comments: first, can you point to anywhere that Alasdair Allan (you might at least try to get his name right) has argued that Scottish Studies or Scottish History should ‘limit students’ study to only what occurred here’ [and it is of course hoped that the grammar of those students would be better than yours], or that the point of the exercise is to introduce some ‘petty nationalism’? Once again, the inability of those in the Labour Party to see any suggestion or policy other than through the very narrow prism of current constitutional debate is deeply depressing, and does a profound disservice to what is a serious and important matter for all of us.

    Secondly, anyone – and particularly someone described as ‘currently studying for an MA in Historical Research’ – who thinks that any history can be ‘objective’ clearly has learned nothing. There are debates, discussions, contested interpretations and arguments. Objectivity belongs in maths, or perhaps philosophy. There may be (there are) things to say about the approach we take to Scottish history, and it would be better if you decided to engage constructively, rather than engaging in the fatuous exercise of setting up straw men that don’t exist and imputing arguments that no-one has made.

  3. The Jacobite Uprising “What is not mentioned was that the military commanders of the British forces at that battle, as well as their men, were mostly Scottish.”
    This is absolute nonsense, and I ask the writer of this article to back that claim up with fact!

    1. The author has made a factual error there, the Government Army was made up of soldiers from across the Union and as a result of the majority of soldiering stock being English, the Government army was mostly English although Scots and Irish fought with them. What the Author should have said is that public support in the lowlands was largely for the Government as opposed to the rebels.

  4. Hi Lee 

    I thought your analysis was fairly excellent, please don’t listen to your detractors on this site.

    As a student teacher I have mixed feelings about the idea of Scottish Studies. I would hope it would involve some sort of critical analysis, as you said. I would also hope it would tie in to modern studies and the citizenship agenda in order to give children an idea of modern and outward-looking Scotland.  The number of children who cannot name their MSP is shocking and something that needs to be address.

    If it means simply telling children about the Braveheart bits or bashing the UK I would not be on board.  

    To be honest though can’t really see the concept working with CfE, as we are trying minimise and simplify subjects, and a new subject seems daft. Perhaps, along with literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing, it would be better suited to being a core tenant of CfE to be taught in some capacity in every class. Literacy, numeracy, health and wellbeing and modern Scotland. Just a thought. 

  5. Don’t have your experience in research however a quick visit to some well known sites state that max of 4 battalions of the 16 in the Government forces came from Scotland with an additional one from Ulster. Interesting to see that there was a regiment from Manchester on the Jacobite side. As already mentioned the date of Culloden was 1746 not 1745.

    As for Darien I was always under the impression that Scotland was financially stable with the Burghs running a surplus however a group of influential people had overstretched their resources in a dodgy investment and looked for a bail out….why does this sound familiar?

    That aside as I have mentioned elsewhere I do think that it would be possible to engage students by making studies relevant to them. This should be achieved by giving them an understanding of their own history and the part that Scotland and Scots have played in global events, both good and bad. I would hope that this would encourage all to look for the facts from a number of sources, as all good researchers would, and question those on both sides of any argument.

  6. i enjoyied this article a fair bit, and i think its correct to teach more about our history as scotland and britian. Although i did enjoy the haters with their comments, some had a point such as “objectively look at history” as thats very hard to do, not impossible and i can see were you coming from ” dont go all america with your history”. Although why target you about your spelling i dont know,might be that you slipped up or have issues with spelling which in turn makes it a bit childish to target it,but then again grammer nazis cant help themselfs.

  7. Of the 16 British infantry battalions who fought at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, 11 were English, 4 were Scottish (3 Lowland + 1 Highland), and 1 Irish battalion. Of the 3 British battalions of horse (dragoons), 2 were English and 1 was Scottish. The majority of the officers were English.

    As for the Darien Scheme it was elements of the Scottish nobility that feared bankruptcy and saught English help as a solution. The English parliament never wiped out the Scottish national debt, they paid off the Scottish nobility instead. Scotland, the country, was never bankrupt, it was only the Scottish political classes who were. This is what Scottish history has to tell us.

  8. Scottish studies is a waste of time.

    In 1707, Scotland ceased to exist, the UK built the largest empire the world has ever seen and changed the world.

    Scottish history is insignificant compared to a world altered and transformed by the UK.

    Scottish pupils should be taught British history only and be given a wider view of the events which helped form the world today.

    1. I think you might find that the Scottish parliament ceased to exist but Scotland as a country remained in place. Truth overrules lies every time.

    2. The subject of Scottish Studies is full of such fascinating facts regarding the impact that Scots had on the world. Scots who were taught under a Scottish education system, preached to by a Scottish church and their lives protected by a Scottish legal system.

      As many of the ‘UK’ accomplishments were driven by Scottish prowess, zeal and expertise, your call for their contributions to be a central theme of ‘UK’ wide history lessons is to be admired.

  9. There should be alarm bells ringing and warning lights flashing all over the shop when the SNP start suggesting that they should meddle with our kids’ education.

    This is the same SNP which allows its spokesfolk (SNP MSP Joan ‘Bonkers’ McAlpine) to claim that one of the the first acts of the British state was to conduct a ‘progrom’ of Highlanders – complete and utter nonsense.

    This is the same SNP whose senior members describe the union flag as the butcher’s apron, who peddle historical fantasy as fact and who attempt to distort our history for their own narrow agenda.

    When the SNP stop behaving like tartan David Irvings, cynical historical quacks who think nothing of twisting facts to make them fit with their own prejudices, then they might, just might, be in a position to comment. Until then we should be very wary indeed of any suggestions on Scottish history from a party who saw fit to leaflet cinemas showing that great documentary about Scottish history, Braveheart…

    1. “When the SNP stop behaving like tartan David Irvings.”

      I am frankly astonished that Tom Harris allowed this to be published. I would suggest that ‘admin’ does a quick check on who David Irving is. A disgraceful comment.

  10. I don’t really see any conflict between teaching Scottish history & the comments that Lee has made. Far too many people in Scotland believe in myths, because we are not taught our own history in the context of what was happening in the rest of the world.

    Many people do believe in the Brigadoon version of Scottish history, where everyone spoke Gaelic & those dreadful English were the enemy & the Highland Clearances were a holocaust. That is bollocks, it is as accurate as Braveheart.

    I don’t see what objection there can possibly be in giving children the facts, showing them different interpretations of those facts, & then letting them make up their own minds.

  11. I am convinced that The next G.E is a cybernat taking the piss and the normally astute admin has fallen for it.

  12. Has anyone visited a school and seen the History that is taught? Scottish history is addressed within the new curriculum especially at Higher Level where, it is interesting to note, many students (even nationalist ones) are not too happy to see it. They point out always what has been omitted from their studies.
    Which brings an important point – timetable constraints mean that selection must always govern what is taught. And if we are to teach Scottish History, what do we select? What impression do we create of Scotland’s past? Should we emphasise Scotland’s development as a nation or should we look at Scotland’s role in the world (both good and bad bits?) And who selects?
    And then this leads to the very problem of objectivity. The statement attributed to Dr Allen would imply that he does not like what has currently been selected. Because it does not give the political slant which he hopes for? History in schools in a democratic society should not become a tool for developing a particular view of the world.
    We do try in schools to encourage students to interpret the past, to discuss and put forward their views. We encourage,but I’m not sure of the extent to which we succeed. Younger pupils require source material which been simplified to such an extent that we are really limiting the potential for them to raise ideas. And older students are constrained by an examination system with marking schemes which really have a preferred, pre-ordained, response to be produced in a specific style. Pegs in holes.
    And the problem of resourcing is an issue of course – on the basis of what evidence can students form an opinion?
    We do want to encourage young people to understand where they are coming from with a view to enabling them to think where they want to go to. And in doing so we need to be very conscious of who is controlling the curriculum and with what agenda.

  13. You know some of these comments really expose the madness that lies at the heart of Scottish Labour.

    It’s as if you seriously believe that Scottish children are taught about Scottish history and culture they will automatically become rabid nationlists who hate the English.

    It’s hard to believe you are so simplistic but what concerns me the most is that I suspect you believe the worst outcome of such a scenario (impossible and preposterous as it is) is that they would no longer be inclined to vote Labour!

  14. Thanks everyone for your comments.

    It’s good to see that my article has spurred some debate.

    I’m going to address some of your concerns, unfortunately due to space issues I can’t address all of them.

    Firstly, apologies for the silly typo of 1745 rather 46 – I should have taken more care of my proof reading.

    The numbers involved in Culloden are disputed and my comments were certainly polemical, however what is clear is that the Jacobites were largely highlanders, whereas large numbers of lowlanders did side with the British. This supports my contention that the England v. Scotland narrative should be tempered with a recognition of the internal rivalries in Scotland. I think many of the comments here show the need for this; there is still an unwillingness to tackle the past conflicts within rather then out-with Scotland.

    It is important not just because a reading of Scottish history is incomplete without understanding past domestic politics, it challenges any attempt to read into the events of the past a series of founding myths about the core of a Scottish ‘nation’ created because of it’s conflict with England. That international conflict was important in Scotland’s development, but it’s only part of the story.

    The debate here has unfortunately been too narrow in some respects, while the minute of a particular part of history has its place, I think the wider issues have been ignored.

    I agree with those of you who concerned about our the ability to be objective. My aim was not to advance a traditional, historicist approach to objectivity (that we can re-create the past with scientific accuracy) but an objectivity more common in contemporary historiography. That an awareness of the varying interpretations can lead to more accurate results. If we teach the differences of opinion then we can allow students to form their own ideas. I do not agree that the teaching of history should abandon the aim of any attempt at objectivity, or that our schools should not teach to their students that the analysis of sources and interpretations are essential at getting nearer the truth. That is a post-modernist rejection of historical method taken to an extreme.

    The overall aim of my article was to suggest that the core skills of history should be at the forefront of any new curriculum. The importance placed on sources and an awareness that there is no one truth to history, but a series of competing interpretations. We must be cautious when politicians, either in Edinburgh or London, decide that history is part of a programme to promote a particular view of the country’s past and present. This applies as much to Gove’s proposed reforms as it does to Dr Allan’s.

  15. Well, you know you have made some quite specific points here – to wit:

    “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.”

    As a good historian you will be able to source the comments from Alasdair Allan which suggest that schools need to say nicer things about Scotland and its past and saying that history teachers just aren’t getting it?

    Cos I can’t find any quotes from Alasdair Allan which say anything like that.

  16. This is a great article by Lee and would agree with all his points. My concern with History teaching in schools at least in my experience was the massive ‘Hitlerisation’ of the curriculum which in turn leads to a very narrow focus on selective parts of British history. We are part of Europe and yet we teach almost nothing of European history in our school. I find this utterly myopic.

  17. Not a word about the Highland Clearances……surely a fairly important Scottish historical event?


  18. Hitory of a nation is vital and to make it political is offensive. The migration of Scots from Ireland to Scotland is different from the English foundation. The viking influence differs across the “UK”. The auld alliance etc etc

    Please do not attempt to suggest we have a common UK history!

  19. Some decent points – the Jacobite army was largely Highland – not exclusively so, just mostly. That was alrgely a product of the ability of Highland to demand militray service from their tenants rather than a popular commitment to the Stuart cause. The Government army was draw from across the British Isles…which is whay one might expect of a British army.
    The contention that medieval Scotland was largely about a Highland-Lowland divide is just nonsense; ask any medieval historian. Medieval Scotland was almost unnaturally politically stable compared to any other European country. The ‘bleak, poor, culturally-riven’ Scotland of the Middle Ages is the product of poor scholarship and heady romance and – I’m afraid – a hefty dose of English nationalism over the last three hundred years.

    Is history badly dealt with in Scottish schools? Well…yes. It is getting better, but it is not yet adequate, let alone good. Lack of a decent textbook is part of the problem – there is a set of books for Primary use, but they really are dreadful. A shortage of suitably-qualified teachers is another. Many history teachers in Scotland have no real knowledge of their country’s history. I know one (a head of department no less) whose degree topics were all American, Russian or African. He once told me that he supposed ‘he should have read’ Nicholson, Duncan and Barrow, but it was n’t really important since ‘history does n’t change’. His knowldege of Scottish history was limited to having read a book that was not exactly a piece of quality scholarship when it was published in the 1920s.
    Is it important to teach Scottish history….well…we do live in Scotland, so there is a pretty good argument that the basis of our study of history should be…well…Scottish.

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