Decolonising the curriculum – re-evaluating past memories

By Joseph Bell

The last few months have been flooded with debates surrounding our past. In particular, questions have been asked of the way Britain remembers its history. Important conversations have been started by the Black Lives Matter movement, questioning the way we present our heroes and the voices we choose to amplify within our history. School curriculums are key in shaping perceptions of Britain’s past, which play a huge role in our culture and beliefs. A burst of online petitions and protests have demanded we ‘decolonise the curriculum’, but what does this mean and how can we do it? 

 A large part of this movement is the obvious need to promote works from more black and minority voices across a range of subjects – especially English Literature and History. This is another hugely important discussion, but as a history tutor, I will focus mainly on the content I have taken issue with in schools’ curriculums over the past few years. 

I have had moments of disbelief when teaching from clearly outdated textbooks. Few offer a balanced view, with the British Empire still portrayed as a force of good across the world and minority voices often pushed to the side. 

As one example, a common entrance revision guide I was recently using to help teach a Year 8 student had a whole section about 19th century Imperial rule in India. The 19th century was a brutal period of colonial rule, with British officials disregarding local customs and stripping India of resources, resulting in mass famines. Despite this, the revision guide in question only used one case study to highlight rising tensions – the Indian mutiny, where Indian soldiers rose up against the British and killed unarmed British civilians. Whilst it is important to view cases like these in context, highlighting this one event alone helps feed the narrative implemented in school history curriculums from a young age that we are historically the ‘good guys.’ Although the killing of civilians was a shocking moment, the British soldiers also responded brutally, burning villages and killing Indian soldiers and civilians in return. There is no mention of this in the revision guide, which chooses to focus solely on one atrocity against the British during colonial rule rather than offering a balanced perspective, which would find that there were many more atrocities committed by the British Imperials than suffered by them. There is no mention of the hundreds of thousands of Indians who were killed or starved to death due to brutality and misgovernment around the same time. Instead, the guide chooses to ignore this part of Imperial history.  

Even as far back as the Crusades, textbooks have a tendency to create one-dimensional British heroes. On the same page, one history textbook describes Richard the Lionheart as ‘devout, strong and courageous’ before writing of how ‘he openly massacred… several thousand Muslim prisoners.’ Despite bringing light to this event, Richard is still named as ‘courageous’ and ‘brave’ and sent to ‘free the city of Jerusalem from the Muslims.’ Again, few Crusader atrocities are mentioned pre A-level and no effort is given to portray Saladin and the people on the other side as anything more than a vague mention of ‘the Muslims.’

It wasn’t until university I found out about the horrendous atrocities committed by the British Empire. I remember feeling physically sick when reading about the methods of torture used by British soldiers against the Mau Mau people in the 1950s, anger at the slaughtering of Indian civilians at the Amritsar Massacre in 1919 and confusion when finding there was more to Winston Churchill than just the cartoon-like grumpy yet charming war hero we are taught from a young age to know and love. My school history lessons rightly covered the horrendous loss of life during both world wars, but never once taught me about the over one million Indian soldiers who served in World War One, or the 2.5 million African soldiers. In addition, the curriculum is quick to tell us about the importance of the Magna Carta in building modern Britain, but less so about the Windrush generation brought into reignite the economy after World War Two. There is a distinct lack of minority voices among historians, primary sources and textbook authors throughout school curriculums. When looking at History, students should grow up with a view that considers everything.

In a 2019 YouGov poll, 32% of British people stated they were proud of the Empire, with 19% saying they were slightly ashamed and the rest unsure. So that’s 49% of people who don’t know enough to express an opinion about the Empire, a key part of our history.

The government has dismissed the need for an overhaul of the history curriculum, which is a mistake. Black Lives Matter has opened new opportunities to revisit uncomfortable debates and we should be seizing them with both hands. Positively, schools such as Winchester, St. Pauls and more have taken this moment to ‘reconsider’ their curriculums, investigating a lack of attention on Britain’s role in the slave trade and the darker parts of Imperial history. Children should be learning everything about our historical figures and events – the good, the bad and the ugly. We appear to be ashamed of admitting the flaws of our heroes and national figures. Instead of ‘Winston Churchill was a wartime leader who did no wrong’, why can’t we have ‘Winston Churchill was an important, intelligent and charismatic wartime leader, but also held controversial opinions and was partly responsible for a manmade famine which killed many people in India.’ We need to present students with a balanced view, instead of raising our heroes on pedestals and erasing the bad bits of history. Now is the time for a rethink of our national curriculum, embracing both the happiness and the pain that Britain has caused in its long and bloody history.  

Useful / well-rounded resources: 

  1. Lucy Campbell, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jul/30/history-young-black-britons-race-schools-policing , accessed 10/9/2020.
  2. Mason Boycott-Owen, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/06/20/private-schools-look-decolonise-syllabuses-black-lives-matter/ accessed 11/9/2020.

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