while I remember – and inspired by Schama’s reminder to us last night that the past can shape our future, a little extract from something I wrote a while back about the study and teaching of history, a topic I debate endlessly with my history teacher brother…
“At a time when UK policy makers are increasingly concerned about how to tackle the apparent ‘radicalisation’ of young Muslims in Britain, as well as worrying about the sense of dislocation reported by white working class young people, the place of a national history on the school curriculum has never been more important. We should be wary of building a national identity on the basis of a rose-tinted conception of some kind of shared past; however, we should and must seek to build openness and tolerance on the basis of the recognition of a diverse past. So what role can and should history play in teaching tolerance and understanding?
This question is of great relevance to the current UK agenda on multiculturalism, tolerance and citizenship. The importance of the past is in the process of being re-assessed in the UK. Last year saw the publication of the Ajegbo report, exploring the connections between the citizenship curriculum focus on diversity and understanding, and the understanding of a so-called national history. Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, has talked in great detail about what constitutes Britishness in the light of the terror attacks of 7/7, and a growing anxiety about the identity crisis that many of our young people appear to be experiencing. On the one hand, a sense of history, of who we are and where we have come from, is clearly a vital part of understanding one another. On the other, history has a darker side, being used to justify often deeply unjust behaviour on the basis of a manipulated account of national identity.
History has often been seen as providing students with a skill set at the heart of educating for tolerance – core skills being empathy, understanding sources and bias, for example. But recent debates in the UK have also posed the question of whether historical knowledge – of events, movements and people – is as important as the skills of history in teaching tolerance and encouraging children and young people to explore difference and identity. This ‘new history’ movement has taken place alongside a rehabilitation of psychological work on conflict resolution from the 1950s, such of that of Allport. A renowned psychologist, Allport argued that contact between groups can reduce conflict, but only if that contact is deep, contextual and challenging. History’s role in ensuring a meaningful engagement with difference, in all its forms, has enormous potential. The question is how to connect the teaching of history with a wider focus on educating young people in tolerance and understanding.”