The Dangerous Monopolisation of our History | Sarah Kuszynski
Sarah Kuszynski is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.
“We are against… the teaching of contested political ideas as if they are accepted fact” said the Equalities minister Kemi Badenoch in the House of Commons on 22nd October 2020. She stressed the importance of schools remaining apolitical rather than making students hyper aware of racial politics, which risks entrenching division and self-loathing based on ‘inherited guilt’. She went on to criticise “the promotion of Critical Race theory” as an ideology “that sees… blackness as victimhood and… whiteness as oppression”. Critical Race Theory moulds how young Brits understand their country by deploying history in such a way as to equate all western values with those of white nationalism. Badenoch’s powerful speech also highlights the dangers of viewing the past as one coherent, unfalsifiable narrative as well as the concerning shift away from the search for objective truth. History is currently being used to entrench a narrow worldview, and to disseminate niche postmodernist views far beyond the academy. This therefore produces a reductive and incomplete knowledge of our past.
A more suitable method for teaching our history is a pedagogy based on engagement with the complexity and messiness of our past. History should enable learners to gain meaning, while at the same time empowering the interpretation of factual knowledge. When William Faulkner noted, “[t]he past is never dead. In fact, it is not even past”, he pinpointed history’s ‘ongoingness’ in public life, making clear the connection between the past and a continual search for truth. By contrast, a one-sided education does not seek to ascertain what occurred in the past, but rather to justify action in the present, discourage curiosity about the past, and undermine the need to search for truth, thereby allowing the past to be monopolised. History then appears to be something self-explanatory, immune to criticism, and rather dull.
The meaning we find in the past is tied to the language with which we teach history. “[T]eaching… contested political ideas as… accepted fact” is a form of language policing which risks imposing one truth and one history, to the exclusion of all others. The classic, yet prescient, warning against such manipulations is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the novel, all alternative viewpoints are regarded as transgressions and the sole guardians of truth are the Inner Party who ensure: “the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting”. This creates a reality framed by a narrow ideology and reinforced through a single history. Relatedly, the contemporary prominence of phrases like ‘white privilege’ and ‘intersectionality’, used in academic grievance studies, are symptomatic of an obsession with pathologising the past, making us perpetual victims of our history.
Obsessively subjecting history to standards of modern moral judgement conceals our own failings as we claim some moral superiority and false agency over the actions of those before us. A central example of ‘holding the past to ransom’, has been the removal of statue of slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol, the vandalism of Winston Churchill’s in London, and the scheduled removal of Cecil Rhodes’ in Oxford. By removing memorials, we are casting ourselves in the role of both victim and tyrant. Of course, there is a fundamental difference between being an apologist for outmoded belief systems and wanting previously memorialised historical figures to have their legacy displayed in its entirety – warts and all. Cutting out history’s ‘nasty bits’, cordoning off different monuments, topics or thinkers merely encourages the passive consumption of a partial ‘truth’. As evident from Margaret Macmillan’s Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, she understood, “[w]e can learn from history, but we can also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do“. Willingly removing monuments is thus a form of self-deception, which generates apathy to further investigation of truth.
The desire for a more holistic understanding of history is evidenced by a poll from Policy Exchange, conducted on the British public in June 2020, in which 65% of those surveyed stated it was “unfair to make judgments about people in the past based on today’s values” and “statues of people who were once celebrated should be allowed to stand”. It is highly doubtful 65% of the survey’s respondents were simply apologists for racism or colonialism. More likely, there is a shared understanding that our own social norms are highly mobile: what is virtuous one moment is dubbed ‘cancel’ worthy the next. Such a rash view should not be applied to our history, which is deserving of sustained retrospect. This is also significant because we currently have far more access to information about our history than ever before. Yet, in this information age it has simultaneously become more vulnerable to being re-written, distorted and damaged. The less transient part of our history is therefore our material record, including our monuments. To alter or erect a monument requires greater effort than the few clicks needed to compose an outraged tweet. In light of this, preserving our material record is important. As Robin George Collingwood details, material history provides us with “human self-knowledge… the only clue to what man can do is what man has done”. Whilst monuments obviously do not provide the whole story, they are springboards to further investigation into, and revelations about, the past.
In short, we shouldn’t shed our past, like shedding a skin, nor should we celebrate every aspect of it. There will always be aspects of our past which end up squarely on the wrong side of history. However, we must heed Badenoch’s timely warning in order to ensure the search for objective truth remains of utmost importance. History should emphasise the examination of various forms of evidence, including monuments, as this holds greater potential for richer and more varied engagement with the past.