Our attitude to history has moved from pride to shame
Think of the great Enlightenment philosophers — Hume, Hegel or Kant — and what comes to mind? Religious tolerance, individual liberty, reason, rationality? For a generation of students, it’s likely to be racism.
A growing number of universities are slapping trigger warnings on once great thinkers now deemed ‘problematic’ by today’s academics. Edinburgh University went further and renamed David Hume Tower entirely. At a stroke, this tribute to one the world’s most significant philosophers and a heavyweight of Scottish intellectual history was erased. Edinburgh is now paying for its cultural vandalism. It has reportedly lost £2million in donations since the renaming.
Sadly, it’s not just British universities that view the past with contempt. In Australia, statues of historical figures have been removed or vandalised and there are perennial calls to change the date of — and thus redefine — Australia Day.
Read my full report, Teaching National Shame: History and citizenship in the school curriculum, published by the Center for Independent Studies, Australia.
Identification with a nation-state has the capacity to unite disparate individuals in a shared sense of identity and purpose, with education playing a role in the transmission of this identity through a common curriculum.
In this paper, UK analyst Joanna Williams examines the impact of changing approaches to teaching history and citizenship on the cultivation of national identity in Australia and the UK. She notes that the history curriculum has long provided a specific site for the teaching of a national story, while distinct lessons in citizenship are a more recent development.
In both countries, however, rather than celebrating national successes, history classes increasingly focus on sins of the past, thus teaching national shame. Schools have also promoted the values of global rather than national citizenship, with civics lessons encouraging local political activism as a form of democratic engagement. The legacy is cohorts of young people who have grown alienated from their nation-state and its democratic processes.
The paper concludes by calling for greater balance in the teaching of history, whilst pointing out that the very existence of formal citizenship classes speaks to a lack of confidence and consensus in the values associated with national identity. If a new generation is not to be left alienated from its collective past, the nation-building role that schools once played should be revived.