Last week, a high school freshman’s history homework made the news. When Cece Walsh’s public school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, asked her to list “Positive” and “Negative Effects of Imperialism,” she filled in the second column but left the first one blank. In a note below the empty column, she explained that “asking us to identify positives of imperialism, something that killed thousands and contributed to slavery, is extremely … disrespectful to people whose ancestors were murdered because of colonization.” Her sister Calla Walsh, a senior, shared an image of the homework on Twitter, outraged that her little sister was being asked to list “ ‘POSITIVE EFFECTS’ OF IMPERIALISM??????” and the tweet went viral. Coincidentally, just two days earlier, Britain’s own equalities minister had declared that both the positives and negatives of the British Empire must be taught in British schools, provoking pushback there, too.
In another progressive American public high school, in Palo Alto, California, where my child is enrolled, ninth and 10th graders read William Duiker and Jackson Spielvogel’s World History textbook (ninth edition, 2018), which similarly insists that “neither extreme position [of arguing for or against colonialism] is justified”—invalidating, in a stroke, the epoch-making mass struggles for freedom led by figures like Gandhi and Nkrumah. Stoically valorizing “balance,” the textbook echoes Victorian defenses of empire with lines like this: “British governance over the subcontinent brought order and stability to a society that had been rent by civil war. … British control … led to relatively honest and efficient government that … operated to the benefit of the average Indian” (a claim that flies in the face of scholarship since at least the 19th century). As my child observed in her school newspaper, the book draws up its concluding “balance sheet” by way of a cast of white male scholars (some with shaky claims to expertise). A chapter about the rule of Europeans over Africans and Asians astonishingly neglects to include the perspective of a single historian of color or even a woman. This reading lesson was followed by an in-class debate on the pros and cons of empire.
When I raised my concern with this lesson and debate, as a parent, descendant of anti-colonial activists, and historian of Britain and its empire, I found the high school history faculty and leadership exceedingly receptive. They, too, felt something amiss in the lesson, but struggled to find alternative materials and frameworks. Cece Walsh’s teacher likewise sympathized with her objection and explained that the lesson was part of the state-mandated curriculum, so the best they could do was supply additional readings offering other points of view.
But the social media response to Cece Walsh’s homework revealed the source of the stickiness of colonial-era frameworks for studying empire. Many of those who disagreed with the tweet argued that tallying the pros and cons of empire promotes critical thinking—perhaps without realizing that in doing so, they were uncritically endorsing an approach long favored by British governments precisely for its propagandistic uses. The current Conservative government, nurturing an unapologetic nostalgia for empire, insists, like U.S. states curtailing the teaching of the history of slavery, on a rosy national historical narrative that inspires pride in dominant groups.
It turns out that assessing the truth of the claim that a balance-sheet approach to empire is good for critical thinking is itself an opportunity to flex our critical thinking skills: Does such an approach actually hone our analytical skills, or does it whitewash empire?