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‘Historical Amnesia’ – What’s the Cure?
Kat Smith discusses recent comments made about the 'historical amnesia' in the British curriculum
Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Women’s Suffrage: if I had to immediately recall three topics in my historical education these ones come to mind. Learning from the mistakes of other nations and drawing inspiration and gratitude from the people of our country’s’ past.
After comments by the Indian MP and author Shashi Tharoor that Britain suffers ‘historical amnesia’, I considered my own History curriculum, from primary school carpet lessons to intense A Level discussions. Admittedly, the British Empire is probably not for a 7-year-old child to understand, but it’s still surprising to note the absence of the subject throughout my secondary education. My History A Level focussed on the horrors of living under Stalin and Hitler, the progress of women’s positions in society and the rise and fall of the US economy and society in the 20th century. I’m not denying that these were interesting topics that I enjoyed and developed from learning about, but it’s still worrying that we’re so ready to focus on the wrongful actions of other nations and not our own.
“I don’t know a single person whose education avoided Hitler and his atrocious actions, and I learned about it throughout my time at school in both GCSE and A Level
I’m not claiming that the British Empire is completely avoided in the education system, but rather that it’s very easy for it not to be learned. I don’t know a single person whose education avoided Hitler and his atrocious actions, and I learned about it throughout my time at school in both GCSE and A Level. Of course, Nazi Germany is a hugely important thing to learn about for any person: history or non-history student. But why isn’t colonialism? The extent of my education about colonialism came from looking at poets and authors in English Literature, not from my History textbooks.
A YouGov poll found that 43% of Brits considered the Empire we held to be a good thing and further 44% felt pride over Britain’s colonialism. So, you may be wondering, if like me, you know considerably little about the British Empire, what did the Brits do that was so bad? It can be easy to be proud that the English language spread, our industries developed and our culture became more diverse. The point is: these positive developments came at a heavy price.
We emphasize the atrocity of the Holocaust without acknowledging that the British, too, built concentration camps. Furthermore: diseases were transported from Britain, leading to large death statistics, Africans were sold to the USA as slaves, and huge areas of land and resources were stolen from colonies. These brutal realisations, alongside the fact that there exists an article claiming to outline ’10 ways Britain has ruined the world’ (1), suggests our past is far from perfect.
Tharoor spoke to the Oxford Union last year, stating that the British owe reparations, partially because of its responsibility in reducing India’s share of the economy from 23% to 4% (2). He also says that Britain's industrial revolution was actually premised upon the de-industrialisation of India. The pride Brits take in our industrial development and international reach seems to be blissfully ignorant when we consider how much other countries were dragged down in order for our rise to be possible.
“The pride Brits take in our industrial development and international reach seems to be blissfully ignorant when we consider how much other countries were dragged down in order for our rise to be possible
This opinion is not one shared only by Tharoor and I. Ashley Jackson, Professor of Imperial and Military History, King's College London, commented: “Understandably a lot of British people would like to think that the imperial past was generally ok, but unfortunately if you look at the record of empire it’s very difficult to say that overall it was a good thing” (3). It’s therefore seems to not be a case of us finding the empire to be a positive thing after knowing what happened, but instead not knowing enough about it in the first place, and still being proud.
It’s undeniable that colonialism shaped a lot of what we see in the world today, both in Britain and worldwide. So, I believe that until the curriculum is amended to place more of an emphasis on colonialism, we owe it to ourselves and those affected by the Empire to educate ourselves about it.
This video by The Independent highlights the atrocities Britain committed during the existence of the British Empire: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/worst-atrocities-british-empire-amritsar-boer-war-concentration-camp-mau-mau-a7612176.html
Article by Kat Smith