Max Hastings: This is the country of Drake and Pepys, not Shaka Zulu





[The past 500 years have been dominated by westerners, so there's little point teaching children about other societies.]

Most of the coverage given to last week's report from the government's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority focused upon the decline of school language studies. Because I am a historian by background and inclination, my own attention fell upon its remarks about history.
It expresses concern about the overwhelming Nazi focus. It argues that schools "undervalue the overall contribution of black and other minority ethnic peoples to Britain's past, and ... ignore their cultural, scientific and many other achievements". History, says the QCA, plays "an increasingly marginal role" in both primary and secondary schools, because of "a perception that it has only limited relevance to many pupils' future working lives".

On the first of these points - the Hitler obsession - few thinking people will disagree. Even to me, who has written half-a-dozen books about the second world war, it seems quite wrong to allow teenagers to make that period their only encounter with the past. It should not be difficult to broaden the agenda for pupils who want to specialise in modern tyranny. They might, for instance, undertake comparative studies of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, the 20th century's great mass murderers.

Stalin and Mao command less interest than Hitler because no pictures exist of their crimes comparable with movie images of the Holocaust. In an age dominated by visual images, many find it hard to acknowledge any reality unless they see it on screen. There may be a second reason for this relative lack of interest. More than a few academics harbour a visceral reluctance to acknowledge that what was done in the name of communism should be judged by the same standard as the deeds of fascism.

The QCA further urges a need to give more positive attention to the part of minorities in Britain's history. The authority's thinking is easy to understand: to a teenager of West Indian or Muslim background, medieval exchequer practice or 19th century poor law seem remote. Surely we can offer such children knowledge that strikes a chord with their own heritage.

Yet how is it possible to do much of this in a British school without distorting the western experience, which anyone living here is signed up to? Pupils in modern African or Indian schools obviously focus their historical studies on the experience of subject races under foreign rule. But, as a profound sceptic about multiculturalism, I can't see the case for such an agenda, unless the vast majority of British people are to pretend to be something they are not.

It may justly be asserted that - for instance - the Muslim peoples of the Middle East sustained much higher cultural values in the 12th and 13th centuries than the European crusaders they fought; that many Indian peoples possessed more impressive heritages than our own. But the world's development in the past 500 years has been dominated, for good or ill, by what westerners have thought and done. Other societies, again no matter whether for good or ill, have been losers whose power to determine their own destinies, never mind anyone else's, has been small.

History is the story of the dominance, however unjust, of societies that display superior energy, ability, technology and might. If one's own people were victims of western imperialism, it is entirely understandable that one should wish to study history from their viewpoint. But, whatever the crimes of our forefathers, this is the country of Drake, Clive and Kitchener, not of Tipu Sultan, Shaka Zulu or the Mahdi....





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