Not a box – The importance of teaching history beyond Britain

By Amreen Pathan

Generation Z: Who are they?

The cohort of individuals born between 1997 and mid-2000s with the eldest of the lot entering the workforce in the past year.   

What makes Generation Z distinct from its predecessors?

Well, this is the generation that was raised on the internet and in the binding arms of social media. This is the generation that has tasted the pizza of Italy, smelt the oud of the Middle East, roamed with the lions of Africa and explored the temples of Thailand – all at the click of a button. This is the generation that has lived – all without actually living.

This is the generation that is so steeped in the innovative possibilities of the world, yet knows nothing about its history. Or if they do, it is a history dimmed by the rosy coloured nature of the Britishness taught in schools in the UK. This is why children should be taught world history as opposed to just focusing on history through a British lens.  

As there should be, there is much emphasis on incorporating British values of democracy, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for different faiths and beliefs. But how can one truly understand democracy without tracing the journey to democracy beyond British waters?  How can only truly learn to respect and tolerate without knowing the existence of different cultures and their histories? After all, there are always two sides to a story.

I teach at a faith school where all my pupils are bi or multi-lingual, many with immigrant parents and/or grandparents thereby making them bi or multi-cultural too. As well as lessons designated to history, timetables are also scheduled for Islamic history. Therefore I am not worried about their exposure to history not being diverse, nor culturally rich. However, what about all the other schools across the UK in which a majority are white and exposure to culture is minimal? In 2019, Ofsted introduced Bourdieu’s model of cultural capital in their inspection framework as a guideline for schools to ensure all pupils have an equal chance of succeeding in life. Without cultural capital, there runs the risk of pupils being disadvantaged because of the lack of culture i.e. music, art, language, etc. that other pupils are readily exposed to at home. Similarly, without embedding world history in the curriculum,  there is a true risk of nationalistic ideals shadowing pupil learning and indeed this was the outcry when then Education Secretary Michael Gove (2013) proposed new plans for the History curriculum deemed ‘offensive and insulting’ by historian Simon Schama in its overemphasis on English history.

Children’s writer Malorie Blackman argued that overemphasis on English History makes history irrelevant to children. And this is exactly the point isn’t it? In a world a screen click away, how do we keep children engaged and enraptured with the history that has produced that same world? Simple. By teaching all sides of the coin. I repeat: there are always two sides to a story. Therefore, it should not be a case of whose history we choose to tell. Instead, it should be a case of pursuing competing narratives, presenting them side by side and challenging pupils to immerse in both. This is exactly what the team behind Parallel Histories have chosen to do in the teaching of conflicts including the contentious one of Palestine and Israel.  

Guaranteed not every world history is that of conflict. But every history is that of different perspectives. By seeking out all of these perspectives as opposed to just a British one, children are encouraged to be critical, analytical, enraptured and as advocated by the government, respectful and tolerant in the process.

‘There were black Tudors in England?!’ This was the exclamation echoing across my Year 8 classroom when I introduced our new Black Tudor and British identity over time modules after Easter. This made me realise that pupils are brought up learning about Britain as a symbol of colonial strength and heroism at the expense of two things:

1) The people that have suffered under colonial rule;

2) The exposure to non-white Britons, immigrants or otherwise, who have contributed to the greatness of Britain.

So should pupils be taught world history in schools?

Collecting my thoughts on this topic actually reminded me of Dawud Wharnsby’s song: ‘The People of the Boxes’. If we teach only British history to pupils, we are confining them to a box that appears bright and light and safe but in fact diminishes their minds and intellect making them – as Wharnsby said – ‘afraid to grow and learn.’

So my answer to the above question is a resounding yes. With a more balanced curriculum, pupils would have sufficiently well-informed reference points to refer to events in history especially those shaping happenings today thereby making them more open-minded and well-rounded by default.

My experience with teaching support groups suggests a collective enthusiasm for going beyond British waters but without a government-backed curriculum, such enthusiasm can usually only translate to one-off lessons rather than culturally rich, immersive and inclusive schemes of work. Much more work needs to be done to ensure that our pupils realise that the world is not a British box.

Do any of you teach history? Or perhaps you remember some history you were exposed to at schools? What were your experiences? What would you have liked to learn about that schools did not cover? I would love to hear your thoughts below!

(1) Comment

  • Amreen August 10, 2021 @ 12:03 am

    I don’t remember ever learning about the Middle East, the Silk Trade routes, Africa without enslavement etc. Wish I had exposure to all of this at a younger age. Would also highly recommend Miranda Kaufman’s Black Tudors to get you thinking about a history beyond our perceived notions of an all-white England.

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