Whose past is it anyway?

19th April 1996 at 01:00
Alfred Smyth, who rewrote the history of Alfred the Great, questions the call for teachers to promote a sense of national identity. Dr Nick Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, has placed himself in the eye of a storm by introducing a debate on the role of history in schools which has led to accusations that he lacks understanding of history as a discipline; of its methodology, and of its limitations as a vehicle for transmitting cultural and moral values as well as a sense of national identity, from one generation to the next.

I am with him when he places greater emphasis on narrative than on the bewilderment of workshops and micro studies dealing with medieval fortifications or the history of medicine. There is no reason why historical narrative as taught in schools - when handled with integrity - cannot also help to inculcate the sense of identity, shared culture and moral values that he advocates.

The question is: what narrative, dealing with which past and for which communities, should be included in the syllabus? And is it possible to establish an historical narrative for history students in schools which is neither fictitious nor so caught up in the toils of historical analysis as to fail to reach the promised land of conclusions and some element of judgement?

I believe Nick Tate was right to raise these issues and that they are amenable to satisfactory solution. But the problems here are legion, and an example drawn from my own research area may illustrate some of the pitfalls involved.

For 12 years I studied King Alfred - just the kind of hero that Nick Tate wants children to read about - with a view to laying an acceptable and dynamic synthesis of a huge body of scholarship on this great ruler's career before my colleagues in Anglo-Saxon history. Instead, when I had reached the half-way mark in my research, I realised that not only had Alfred been taken over by 19th-century British imperial historians, but that a biography of the king supposedly written during his lifetime was in fact a monastic forgery concocted a whole century after his death.

This medieval Life of King Alfred claims to have been written in ad 893 by the king's confidant and tutor, Bishop Asser, and is said to provide a cornerstone of Anglo-Saxon history. But I believe it has little of substance to offer on Alfred the Great and was written later, at about ad 1000 to promote a monastic agenda. It is a clumsy forgery written by a monk who had no real knowledge of Alfred other than what he read about him in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in a few prefaces written by the king himself to accompany his translated works. Furthermore, it became apparent that much of the scholarly historio-graphy on King Alfred throughout the 20th century had, for complex academic and political reasons, paid homage to false 19th-century perceptions of the king.

So not only had Alfred never burned the legendary cakes, but he is highly unlikely to have been the neurotic invalid and overreligious wimp as he is portrayed in his medieval Life. The Alfred who emerges from my study is indeed a hero who saved England from outright Danish conquest and he is a ruler calculated to inspire the admiration of the young from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds. As the man who was responsible perhaps more than any other king for providing England with a national identity, he fits Nick Tate's bill very well.

But all these issues are complex and need to be handled with care, not least because so-called Heroes of the Nation (once the title for an historical series) such as Alfred the Great, have long ago been hijacked by Victorian historians and myth makers as precursors of imperial greatness among the British. Alfred, as a king who loved learning and promoted justice among his fellow men; who fought long and hard against a ruthless and more numerous enemy; remains nevertheless a hero for all seasons.

A study of Alfred's enemies - the Vikings - is equally relevant to Nick Tate's debate. Books aimed at school children in the Sixties and Seventies pedalled a trendy "good guys" image of Viking invaders of the British Isles. Gone was all talk of rape and pillage, while children were invited to marvel at Viking craftsmanship in the form of leather shoes and bone combs in Norse workshops in 10th century York. What children were not told was that before the Scandinavian colonists settled down to their huckster existence in English towns, a sustained and brutal piratical phase made that colonisation possible, when throats were cut and loved ones shipped off into slavery.

This brings us to the notion of dealing with past atrocities whether from Bosnia in the Nineties or the Viking Age in the 900s. There is an obligation on historians to present the past with integrity and truth in so far as those qualities are humanly possible, given the cultural and personal baggage with which we all approach our discipline. The historian or history teacher is expected to present the evidence in ways which allow for a just and balanced verdict to be reached on past events. Anyone who informs pupils that King Alfred's enemies were a bunch of well-meaning traders and farmers - some of whom later settled down as harmless cobblers in Lincoln or York - is grossly distorting the truth as it can be recovered from source materials of the 9th and 10th centuries.

The role of teaching history in relation to accommodating ethnic minorities is one of the most crucial aspects of the curriculum if we are serious in our intention to build a pluralist society free of racial and related prejudices. It is not sufficient for Nick Tate to repeat his adage that "the best guarantee of strong minority cultures is the existence of a majority culture which is sure of itself". Nor is it good enough to promote a strong sense of an English or British past for all and to merely tolerate the inclusion of some "ethnic" history for those sub-groups which desire it for themselves only. To develop a society which is truly tolerant demands that both majority and minority communities should study aspects of each others' culture. This is as true for Northern Ireland as it is for attitudes towards Asian or Islamic communities in Britain.

Neglect of this principle in the past has resulted in woeful ignorance on the part of English pupils of major aspects of Scottish, Welsh and Irish history.

Nick Tate needs to recognise the contradictions inherent in his understanding of the historical process in relation to change. He refers in his speeches to the "rather tired concept of change and continuity". But studying the past has much to do with change - the study of ever-changing past events themselves and changing perceptions of them on the part of others. No one version of the past can be mummified like Lenin in his tomb in Red Square and preserved in a glass case by an establishment bent on imposing its own perception of events. Change must enter into the equation, as Tate himself conceded in a speech in Manchester in March, when he said our very notion of "Englishness" has itself changed from the context of 19th-century imperial supremacy to that of a modern Britain "where social relations have been democratised".

Here we have the beginning of wisdom. By applying such notions of changing perceptions to a study of the battle of Hastings for instance, teachers in a multi-ethnic school could use the Norman Invasion as a vehicle for discussion on successive waves of invaders and immigrants into Britain. This approach can involve all children in a subject from the distant past where they can be brought to understand that England is a land which has attracted not one but a whole series of migrations of peoples who later settled and made their homes here - Celts, Romans and Anglo-Saxons and all the rest of them - not forgetting those mild-mannered Viking cobblers in York.

Nick Tate on how local history can create a sense of community, page III Alfred P Smyth is professor of medieval history and master of Keynes College at the University of Kent. His recent book, King Alfred the Great, Pounds 25, is published by Oxford University Press

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