December 19, 2022 - 11:49am

One of the signature aspects of the culture war is the weaponisation of history, particularly by the new, academically-aligned Left. Decolonisation now dominates thinking about university curricula, as well as hiring practice, while museums have embraced its agenda with open arms. 

One recent high profile example was the closure of the Wellcome’s Medicine Man exhibition because the curators felt there was too much of collector and founder Henry Wellcome, in it. In their eyes, the exhibition contained a selection of objects about medical history that was too white, “ableist” and cis-man focused. 

Meanwhile, the ongoing return of Benin Bronzes from museums and, most enthusiastically of all, from Cambridge (116 are in the latest planned shipment back to Nigeria) involves an even more naked use of history as a grenade; most reports on the Bronzes’ return don’t even refer to the massacre of the British that preceded the looting, nor the fact that they belonged to slave-traders in the first place. 

In short, history is complicated, often (though not always) many-sided, and, in a war as bitter and prolonged as the one Western cultures are embroiled in over their cultural inheritance, it helps to actually know some.

But many students, including those committed to regimes of decolonisation, seem less interested in what actually happened in the past, or in historical concepts, than in questions of “well-being” in the present. I had my first taste of this strange dynamic recently at a Russell Group university where I was invited as a guest speaker on 20th century Britain.

A few days later, however, they wrote an email in horror at discovering that I was someone with a “documented history of hate”; I was, they had found, critical of union militants, and had written about the anti-Semitism of the Black Lives Matter movement. They also discovered that I, like most centrist liberals, had criticised trans ideology. They warned of the “significant consequences on the mental well-being and ability to learn” of having someone like me to teach. 

This seemed strange to me. Their well-being had surely been enhanced by seminars in which their teacher had been supportive and encouraging, offering practical ways for them to get good marks. They had passed a perfectly enjoyable hour and a half; they later admitted to the convenor that nobody had been offended, upset, or even bored (at least not visibly). 

The retrospective application of the threat to “mental well-being and ability to learn” was therefore odd, and it illustrates the familiar counterproductive logic of contemporary campus thinking. Students are now so well-versed in the language of indignation and offence, particularly in what is or is not acceptable about the past, that they risk missing out on the real pleasure of university: reading, learning, and thinking. These are a far better route to feeling good than a focus on “well-being” will ever be.

Zoe Strimpel is a historian of gender and intimacy in modern Britain and a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph. Her latest book is Seeking Love in Modern Britain: Gender, Dating and the Rise of ‘the Single’ (Bloomsbury)