Don't distort history for social cohesion

23rd November 2007 at 00:00
British history needs to be more "inclusive" to bind the different social groups together, Trevor Philips, head of the Human Rights and Equality Commission, said recently. Muslims are part of the national story "and sometimes we have to go back into the tapestry and insert some threads that were lost," Philips says.

He uses the Armada as an example: "It was the Turks who saved us, because they held up the Armada at the request of Elizabeth I."

Historians would argue that is overstating the role of the Turks, which was a very minor one at the time. Yet it is not really surprising that the history of the British Isles before 1945 does not include much about non-white citizens or Muslims and rather a lot about white Saxons, Romans, Normans and Vikings. Had Britain been invaded by Genghis Khan, no doubt we would be learning a great deal more about Asia and Islam than we do now.

When the history of Britain was taught mainly as political and military history, it was about invasions, kings and queens. Now history lessons include more social history. Pupils learn how we lived, what we wore, how we passed our time. And, yes, we must acknowledge the contribution of non-white peoples in our social history, with role models such as Mary Seacole, the mixed race heroine of the Crimean War.

But the notion of "inclusive" history is another leap, from social history to history as a vehicle for teaching life skills. If history must teach tolerance then we might have to ditch history altogether because, let's face it, history is full of despots and bigots who have wrecked communities and countries. But, like it or not, they partly shaped the world we live in.

"History is not a vehicle for delivering inclusiveness and integration. It should be a vehicle for truth," says Chris McGovern, of the History Curriculum Association who criticises "new history" in the book The Corruption of the Curriculum. For "inclusive" history, we might look at Septimus Severus, the black Roman emperor who died in York in ad211, he says. The problem is he was rather brutal, so while being inclusive, that would not serve the purpose of a history that promotes tolerance.

That leads to the problem that if you pick and choose who to include or not according to the impact their story might have on social cohesion, it will distort history and it is debatable whether that will benefit society.

The histories and cultures of the peoples that make up this nation are diverse. That's precisely what makes it multicultural. A sense of inclusion in our society will depend on how we treat and accept people here and now. Tinkering with history cannot help.

Yojana Sharma, Journalist and international affairs specialist.

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