What might our world have been like if we had learned the lessons of history a little faster — or, dare I say, if we had even understood them in the first place? There are so many examples of recent history not yet learned that I dare not even broach the topic. And the slowest learners of all often play a role in shaping the present, which is potentially worrying. Going further back to the more easily digestible distant past, the fall of the Roman Empire offers a whole spectrum of history lessons, the most significant perhaps being the overtaxing of the middle classes and the resulting economic catastrophe, as the richer grew wealthy at the cost of the middle classes, who became poor. Since even the distant past can resonate with the present, the question must be how can we harvest the wisdom of the past and put it to work in the present? As with any story old or new, best to begin at the beginning: at school, where most of us learn history in the first place.
The history a nation teaches to its children is like a seed that is planted in a fertile field. Whatever goes in will take root and grow – hence the importance of getting it right, or as right as possible. What should be remembered and taught, and what should we focus on in teaching our nation’s past – should we seek to paint a positive picture, or should we face the lot, warts and all?
In France, with the elections looming, there is talk about France’s colonial past, and how it is taught. There are calls to ‘stop feeling guilty’ about the past, and give French school children a reason to take pride in their heritage. But there is a fine line between truth and lies here, and historians have been quick to draw attention to it. “I refuse to lie about the past,” says one French historian during a television documentary — so the debate goes between politicians and historians. But it is a bit like nationalising health and safety services. You cannot compromise on certain things, and we should not give in to the temptation to paint ourselves in a better light just because it makes things easier. It would be like cutting corners in the health service; the patient will fall sick again, and may even never recover. So what are the warts and how might we treat them?
The subject of slavery has been downplayed in most western countries to avoid facing the awful truth. In US textbooks, for example, the numbers of black slaves beaten to death has apparently been somewhat brushed over, to the extent of claiming that black slaves were usually well treated. (Don’t Mess with Textbooks, David Matthews, fusion.net). But the US is far from being the only nation guilty of a ‘make-over’ of the facts. In the UK too, we have our own bête noire: imperial power.
According to an article in The Independent in January 2016 by Jonathan Owen, almost half the population of Britain still believes that the British Empire was a generally good thing. That these views are roughly distributed according to political orientation is not surprising. Most of those who take a positive view of empire are conservatives, and the British Empire, it must be said, was very much under the control of the upper classes right from the start. But now that Britain is arguably becoming more middle class (or should I say more aspiringly middle class), and certainly more multi-cultural, British children are viewing the whole ‘wave-ruling’ past in a very different light – or at least, those of them who take an active interest in history.
Because those who simply absorb what they learn at school in Britain are likely to come away with a bunch of half-truths or at worst, no truth at all. And here’s the crux: “An unwillingness to engage with the ‘warts and all’ of imperial history makes Britain particularly blind to how governments and the people of other countries view British society.” So says Professor Daniel Branch of Warwick University history department. And he is not the only historian trying to make himself heard above the din of nationalism. The Professor of Imperial and Military History of King’s College, Ashley Jackson, says, “The basis of empire is that you rule other people, you deny them independence, you exploit their labour and resources, and a lot of the ‘good things’ were often incidental and secondary.” Politicians, however, are often less than keen to expose the blemishes of their country’s past, and since government ministers and not historians are in control of education, it is hard to effect change without rocking the boat.
In the heated run-up to the French presidential elections this May, centre left candidate Emmanuel Macron recently claimed that French colonialism was “a crime against humanity”. That made the news at eight. Eyebrows were raised. Voices of dissent quickly followed. When are we ever going to have to stop apologising for our past, politicians moaned. Never, I suspect. Still, Macron toned it down a bit. After all, he has an election to win. He quickly added that the comment had been taken “out of context”. An interesting apropos, since he was in Algeria at the time. So, we are all as guilty as each other then. At least there is comfort in that.
Speaking personally, I am ready to confess that as a school leaver I had a vague vision of British Imperial greatness, one that has taken a good deal of reading to eradicate. In other words, ideas that are seeded early into our minds as young people can be hard to replace. When we are young we have a tendency to accept what is told to us, not to question it. And unless we are actively encouraged to do so, we will never evolve, neither as individuals nor as nations. The solution might be to revise history periodically, in order to stamp out trends before they become ingrained in the national consciousness. But, inevitably, time plays a role. Perhaps it is only possible to take a more balanced view when enough water has flown under the bridge. The only trouble with that, is we will always be one generation (at least) behind the truth, and just as guilty as any dictatorship of massaging the facts to suit ourselves.