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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » No Apology for Putting History at the Top of Today’s Agenda for Young People

No Apology for Putting History at the Top of Today’s Agenda for Young People

This article was first published on Suite 101, November 2012. It is republished now as it is still timely.

Although computers never forget, the digital age creates a kind of permanent present. Society neglects its past roots at its peril. This is a hot Westminster topic. 

Discussion about history suggests clever quotations. We learn from history that we don’t learn from history (attributed to Oscar Wilde) and those who don’t learn from history are condemned to learn it over and over again (attributed to Mao Tse Tung), spring to mind.

George Orwell’s novel Nineteen-Eighty Four (1948) created Big Brother with the chilling slogan: He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future. Today, in a watched society, its both true and relevant.

English writer LP Hartley (1895-1972) said, ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. That one sums up our frequent puzzlement about why on earth our grandparents did and said particular things.

An Oxford University study has concluded that school children need to learn about Christianity in order to understand their history and culture. Leaving aside the impact of Christianity today, the fact is that much British history is interwoven with Christian values and teaching.

History Is Politics

The wider issue it highlights is just what should children be taught about the past? Does it always become a political issue?

The History Teachers Discussion Forum welcomes visitors to their website with the opening, Both students and teachers of history can meet here to discuss historical, political and other issues.

In 2010, the UK’s Historical Association, the voice for history, looked at history teaching in secondary schools. They discovered that many senior school managers assuming that the study of the past has no value in its own right subsume history into generic humanities.

Teenagers at the end of statutory schooling (16) are driven by exam result obsessions in their schools. This may be changing slightly with controversial new specifications and exam qualifications by the Government over the coming three years, but the central point that history is a discipline dealing with understanding change is still in danger of being lost. In a rapidly, exponentially changing world understanding change is ever more vital.

In August 2011, Tristram Hunt, writing in The Guardian put it that if we have no history, we have no future. He called the elimination of the past in schools as nothing short of a national tragedy. He said history provides competences like prioritising information, marshalling arguments, critiquing sources, but more than those, history is the material culture of the past; understanding lost communities; charting the rise and fall of civilisations.

He argued it provides collective memory, a connection to time, place and community. Hunt quoted Marxist philosopher Eric Hobsbawm about most young people at the end of the 20th century growing up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in.

The Past Is Seen Through Today’s Perspective

The actual education syllabus is only one part of it. Its also the human habit of judging the past through the views and values of the now. Its an application of political correctness sometimes. Contemporary disapproval of actors smoking in films, shouldn’t remove from circulation all old films that show that.

To state the facts of slavery, racism, genderism, chauvinism, homophobia or corporal punishment, for example, is not to condone such attitudes. We cant undo the past we disapprove of. It helps to understand that past. Everything has a past which influences the present in some way.

Its understandable that in Germany, France and Austria holocaust denial is a criminal offence. The horrors of that era are still so enormous that it makes sense in order to respect the huge human losses that were inflicted on people.

However, it set a precedent. All countries have episodes which nowadays are seen as shameful. But events in the First World War between Turks and Armenians are still so hotly disputed that today it’s a crime in France to assert that Armenian genocide didnt occur, and in Turkey its a crime to say that it did!

It should also make us wonder how the future will judge us. One contemporary obsession is apologising for the past. For the atrocities of slavery, child labour, colonialism, religious conflicts, international war and whatever else we think of as bad, we now apologise.

We say sorry for what our ancestors did in their time and context to make us feel better about it. Not to teach young people about that is to do them a disservice. Not to discuss things which make us feel uncomfortable is to abnegate teaching responsibilities.

Historic Abuse

The news is now full of old cases of people who committed crimes many years, even decades, ago. New technology and a readiness to report historic abuse is leading to further cases. That is quite proper and long overdue.

It now reaches beyond the grave with cases like the late, once-feted celebrity Jimmy Savile. He may turn out to have been Britain’s worst sex offender, and the search is on to find who  was complicit with him, who turned a blind eye to what he was up to.

Abuse in the past applies to stealing that some MPs did from public funds through their expense accounts. Some have been jailed, but not all. Some have repaid and apologised; Margaret Moran has been ruled too ill to stand trial.

But the fact is that we as a nation need to come to terms with all that is done by us and in our name previously and currently, so we can make the future as peaceful, balanced, fair, equal and open as humanly possible.

At least, that’s a laudable aim. The realities of the human condition may change all that in the future, of course.


History Teachers Discussion Forum Web 27 November 2012

Oxford University Surveys Web 27 November 2012

The Guardian, Tristram Hunt, ‘If we have no history, we have no future’, 28 August 2011. Web 27 Nov 2012

The Historical Association Web 27 November 2012


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