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by Ed West
Tuesday, 18
February 2020

Schools don’t teach about the British Empire — and that’s a good thing

Secondary-level history is too limited to teach complex subject matters
by Ed West
Explorers like Sir Walter Raleigh are presented as heroic and buccaneering, but how many teachers are telling their pupils about Britain’s efforts to drive out the slave trade or end the practice of sati?

One of the curious characteristics of the post-1960s cultural establishment is that they’re the first ruling class in history to deny they’re the ruling class. It’s partly because they prize nonconformity and rebellion, which is hard to let go of once you’re in power and now want to police rather than smash the Overton Window (while likeing to imagine you’re still the counter-culture).

A good example of this comes in the Observer review of Afua Hirsch’s new book, We Need to Talk About the British Empire, which reports that:

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As Hirsch points out in the first episode, those of us who went through the UK education system have a ridiculously limited idea of British empire and colonialism. Essentially, we’re taught that the clever Brits arrived in chaotic foreign places, and bestowed them with great roads, plus democracy, class structure and a sprinkle of Christianity where needed. And when the British left those countries – as of course they had to – everyone went a bit mad without them.
- Miranda Sawyer, The Guardian

Sure, lots of people express positive views about the British Empire, but that’s not because they’re taught that by an overwhelmingly left-of-centre education system, but because they have what you might call patriotic or ethnocentric (or, depending on your viewpoint, racist) beliefs, so they tend to make their opinions about history fit that. Someone’s view of Britain’s Empire serves as a useful proxy for “how much do you love your own country/ethnic group”, and lots of people do. But these are very low status opinion and very few teachers would express them.

I went to a Catholic secondary and my history teachers were all Irish or of Irish origin, so maybe my education was unusual, but I don’t think many people under the age of 50 were taught about the glories of the British Empire at school. Seventy years ago, maybe, kids might have been lectured about the world map being pink, but it hasn’t been the case for decades. This argument seems not so much a straw man as a straw ghost; it was true once, in the long distant ancien régime.

Indeed most people are taught very little about the empire, and the little they are is generally negative. Explorers like Drake, Raleigh or Columbus are presented as buccaneering, but it’s not as if teachers across the country are telling their pupils about Britain’s efforts to drive out the slave trade or end the practice of sati.

Not that I think they really should. Empires are vastly complex things and almost all had monstrous as well as benevolent aspects, because imperialism is a form of globalisation. In the British case the trans-Atlantic slave trade was a crime against humanity, and the empire presided over several famines in India, as well as benevolent rule in place like Malta or Hong Kong.

It’s a very complex issue, and perhaps one that would be divisive at secondary school level, but the idea we’re being taught about the glories of empire strikes me as bizarre. Indeed up to the age 16 I learned more about Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia than I did about my own country.


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Joanna Lillis
Joanna Lillis
3 years ago

Test comment

3 years ago

Why test