News By Country British history should not be treated as a ‘soft...

British history should not be treated as a ‘soft play area’, says David Olusoga


Writer and broadcaster says teaching about the past must not be a way of making people feel good about themselves

Britain’s relationship with history is “not fit for purpose”, according to a leading historian who said too many pupils are still taught a “dishonest version” of the nation’s past that left out uncomfortable truths.

David Olusoga, the writer and broadcaster, told school leaders that Britain often saw its history as “recreational … a place that we go for comfort, a place to make us feel good about ourselves”, leading to ignorance about the history of its empire, and to immigration scandals such as Windrush.

“We are becoming, perhaps already are, a nation for whom the history that we have and the relationship with history that prevails, is not fit for purpose,” Olusoga told the conference in Birmingham.

“If history is a soft play area, there is no place for histories that explain how we all came to be here on these islands together, because those histories cannot be enjoyed purely as recreation, they cannot always be heroic.

“And so for decades, we got in the habit of not including those histories, and we’re so good at it that we don’t even notice the trick being done. It is like a conjuring trick perfected completely, so that no one can see the sleight of hand.

“We’re comfortable with the story of abolition but we’re not comfortable with the story of two and a half centuries of slave trading that necessitated abolition. We’re comfortable talking about the Indian railways but much less comfortable talking about the famines … that also took place in that same country.”

Olusoga said the Home Office’s bungled attempts throughout the Windrush affair showed “the active damage the ignorance of history can do”.

“People in the Home Office were adjudicating on the status of people whose histories they didn’t understand. They didn’t understand that people from Jamaica were from an island that had been a part of England and Britain’s empire since 1655, when it was invaded by Oliver Cromwell,” he told a conference of school leaders in Birmingham.

“So the knowledge of this history is not only beneficial to everybody, it is actively, demonstrably damaging our society when people operate without knowing that history.”

Olusoga said he was failed by the history taught at school in the 1980s, when he was growing up in Gateshead and suffering at the hands of racist bullies who attended the same schools and were taught the same stories as he was.

While he learned in great detail about the cotton mills of Lancashire, Olusoga said he was not taught “where the cotton came from, or that the cotton was produced by 1.8 million African Americans who lived and died in chains, in slavery”.

“It pains me to know that there are children in classrooms now still being taught the dishonest version of the Industrial Revolution that does not include the lives and suffering of those 1.8 million African Americans,” he told the Confederation of School Trusts annual conference.

But Olusoga said that the interest in historical issues and injustices unleashed by the Black Lives Matter movement was not a “political fad” or passing controversy.

“It’s built on profound generational and attitudinal changes. This is not going to go away. When I talk to my students, these views, these positions, these priorities, they are not stances. It is who they are.”

Richard Adams
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