Historical Revisionism and the School Curriculum
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
When talking about history, its place in the British school curriculums, and the new buzzword of ‘revisionism’ (See our guide: Historical Revisionism), it is important to consider just how the study of history has evolved.
We began with political history, which, as the name suggests, focused on political events, ideas, organs of government, and leaders. While useful, it only teaches about the lives and achievements of a very small percent of the population.
Political history, developed largely as an instruction manual for those looking to become politicians themselves, also lent itself to the development of the ‘great man theory’: a concept coined by Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century, according to which, history can be explained in its entirety by the study of ‘great men’, or ‘heroes’ who shaped it either thanks to their superior intellect, heroic courage, or ~divine inspiration~.
In the late 1960s, almost as an antithesis to political history, emerged the field of social history: a study which considered economic and social factors as agents of historical change, and worked from the ‘bottom-up’, focusing less on the political elite, and more on so-called “ordinary people”.
Suddenly, we weren’t just looking at the ‘Great Deeds of Great Men’, but also at the class and economic backgrounds of those deemed ‘great’ and those doomed to be ‘lesser’, and wondering whether their socio-economic background had any impact on them being labelled as lesser. (As you may have guessed, it did). And then, on the coattails of the lens of social history – accelerated by the social and political movements of the late 60s and early 70s – came an appreciation for the study of history with added consideration given to race, gender, and narratives which ‘othered’ people who could’ve and would’ve otherwise become great.
To give an example of the evolution of the lens through which we view history, let’s have a look at Thomas Jefferson (thank you, Hamilton).
In the school of thought of political history, Jefferson was looked at as one of the ‘greats’ of Carlyle’s: Minister and ambassador to France, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, first Secretary of State, and third President of the United States.
Then comes – thanks to social history – the analysis of Jefferson’s family’s economic background and the privilege it granted him; access to tutors from a young age, education in the classics, all the bells and whistles that made ‘great men’ great.
And in 1998, with DNA testing and the new weight assigned to race, gender and minority voices, came the side of history most historians tend to agree on or at the very least acknowledge as most probable now; that Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, the first Secretary of State, and the third President of the United States, was also a slaveowner, and, by our present-day standards, a paedophile. It is largely agreed that he used his status as a wealthy, white man of renown to have an intimate relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, who was a minor at the time of the first liaison, and then had children by her.
Thus, Thomas Jefferson was, indisputably, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the first Secretary of State, and the third President of the USA, a slaveowner* and a rapist. These facts can and should coexist, and they can and should be taught together.
And that is what historical revisionism is.
It is expanding the definitions of what we know of history to include all of the known facts.
It is the act of revising – i.e. looking over and reinterpreting – the historical record in order to reflect new discoveries, evidence, and interpretations which then result in a revised version of history.
It is not, contrary to the belief of some, a sign of ‘PC culture gone mad’, it is not synonymous with vandalism, and it does not begin and end with toppling statues into a river.
In the words of Viscount Bryce in the ‘Proceedings of the British Academy’ (p.121-22):
‘This widening of our field may be primarily due to a larger conception of history, which we have now come to regard as a record of every form of human effort and achievement'
– efforts which were no longer exclusively restricted to the political activities of a privileged elite, but encompassed the deeds and doings of ordinary people, no matter their race, gender or background.
The problem with the British curriculum
Unfortunately, the history curriculum in most British schools appears to still be stuck in the ‘political history’ phase, insisting on shovelling the ‘great men’ rhetoric down the throats of children who have not yet had reason to question why they only learn about old, white men, or why they only learn about very specific periods of these men’s lives, or why they only ever seem to get a highlight reel of their country’s history.
In order to understand the full scope of just how narrow the British school curriculum is when it comes to teaching history, one need only ask the students; asking any of my peers about what they learned in history class will result in a mix of the following five topics: World War I, World War II, the Tudors, the Cold War, and – if they were lucky – some mention of the Slave Trade or the American Civil Rights movement.
Read through our guide on Britain and the Slave Trade for an insightful exploration of this crucial topic.
The Tudors were very memorable; Henry VIII’s six wives, Elizabeth I’s #girlpower, Mary Queen of Scots’ ‘craziness’. But the long-lasting effects of their foreign policies were largely glossed over.
Similarly, the World Wars, while discussed and covered extensively, were usually done so through a lens of ‘British influence’ in said wars. What little of the world history that was taught was still taught with a predominantly western-centric focus (America, Cold War, etc).
Students to this day are bored half to death with the retellings of Churchill’s political genius and oratorical ability, but few educators dare add that he believed in racial hierarchy or was a casual anti-Semite, none of which would detract from his military knowhow, but which would enrich the narrative about why he made certain decisions over others (see here the Bengal famine or the Tonypandy Riots).
Why are we taught the edited version of history, instead of being shown the full picture, including all the parts that don’t make the ‘highlight reel’?
The optimistic take is that people who decide what the curriculum should contain have a rather misguided opinion of what school-age children can stomach. Or that an hour of history a week isn’t conducive to developing an appreciation for the shades of grey that lie between the black and white of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, which motivate the actions and events we now know as ‘history’ in largely indifferent students.
The pessimistic – perhaps even cynical – take, is that history lessons are, to a certain extent, subtle propaganda. No government wants young, impressionable students to read about the massacres committed by their country in the name of whatever was deemed valuable at the time. So to avoid disillusioning our youth, certain parts of our history are swept under the rug, only addressed when students choose to study the subject at university level or emigrate and learn about other perspectives.
Why does it matter that we are taught the full picture?
For somebody studying the period of the Founding Fathers, what does it matter that most of them owned and treated other people like one would own and treat property? It’s a signum temporis; a sign of the times, some would say – that’s what used to be the ‘norm’ at the time.
Others would say that it matters because somebody studying the history of the Civil Rights movement in the US would look at the same period as the starting point of centuries of racial inequity.
As everything around us evolves – our society, our languages, the technology we use – it seems natural that our approach to history evolves, too.
Whether it is good, or bad, or needed, or unnecessary, well…
Decide for yourself.
* n.b., despite owning slaves, in his Notes on the State of Virginia written in 1784-85, Jefferson did criticise the slavery system, claiming that “nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free”.
Yet, of the hundreds of slaves he owned, he only freed two in his lifetime, and an additional five in his will.
When addressing the faults in the British school curriculum, this article has restrained itself – for the sake of brevity and the author’s sanity – to secondary school through to A-Level history classes, acknowledging that, for the most part, university-level history degrees are less guilty of the above-mentioned transgressions.