Many history degree students at university here in the UK do not necessarily look back fondly on their history classes in secondary school. While some wish to believe that they have chosen to pursue history degrees because they were so deeply inspired by their history lessons in school, this is simply not the case – and for a very good reason. Let alone history in secondary schools at GCSE and A Levels often being repetitive and utterly dull, the curriculum itself is extremely Eurocentric and misleading, often ‘marginalizing and misrepresenting’ the role of people of colour and women in world and indeed British history.
Not only does the current history curriculum have very limited, if not entirely absent, discussions about racism and colonialism but fails to accurately emphasize Britain’s (and other Western nations’) role in the subjugation, oppression, enslavement and foul treatment (to put it lightly) of non-white ethnic groups in Western colonies and at home. This alienates children of colour in the history classroom, allowing for a certain air of superiority amoungst white children that could potentially facilitate racism, prejudice and a generally nonchalant approach to the history of racial oppression in the West and its colonies.
Moreover, the history curriculum fails to accurately represent or even touch upon the historical contributions of women. There is a dangerous separation within the curriculum between the history of men, and the history of women. Not only does this encourage students to undervalue and ignore women’s role in history alongside and separately from men, it also teaches children that women are simply not as important as men. Such a blatant sexist and misogynistic double standard is simply not acceptable in an educational environment.
The first issue I want to address in this article is the Eurocentric and ethnocentric style of teaching in history classes. Even though World War I and World War II are two of the most visited topics in history classes in Britain, there is very little history taught about affairs outside of Europe. While both of these wars are extremely important topics in their own right, they are not enough to educate children about the histories and cultures of other countries from a non-Eurocentric perspective. Why is this important? A Eurocentric historical narrative erases and distorts past events and favours colonial discourse. As Matthew Wilkinson wrote in his Guardian article on Gove’s history curriculum:
“Reading this draft curriculum one would have thought that the history of the world was almost entirely enacted by white, English, Protestants. Other people play a marginal role. Muslims and Islam, the second largest religious grouping in the UK and the world’s second largest faith, whose history forms a vital part of the history of humankind, simply don’t exist.”
Teaching a Eurocentric historical narrative promotes racial and cultural stereotypes, allowing children to internalize a dangerous dichotomy between ‘Us’ and the ‘Other’. We rarely learn about the histories of countries within Africa and in Asia, and when such countries are explored, they are albeit brief and general, often enforcing long-held Eurocentric stereotypes about the African or the Indian or the Afghan ‘Other’. For instance, according to Matthew Wilkinson, Black and Asian people are completely excluded from the primary history curriculum, besides a hasty sweep over the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Not only does this erase important historical narratives in Africa and Asia, it altogether excludes the voices of people of colour from the history classroom.
The problem of the lack of representation of people of colour in recent history is also something that needs to be addressed. While we learn about the many white leaders and pioneers in America and Europe, the history curriculum covers little in terms of influential individuals like: Malcolm X, Ibn Al-Haytham, Tipu Sultan, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, the list goes on. Instead, the curriculum is riddled with tokenism, with the vague mention of Martin Luther King, Mary Seacole and perhaps even Nelson Mandela.
Another issue that needs to be highlighted is the history curriculum’s failure to advocate gender equality. The curriculum favours a (white) male dominated historical narrative, where little is taught in terms of women’s contributions to world history, especially in terms of politics, medicine, science and the arts. Why do men like Plato and Hippocrates get a place in the history curriculum, but women like Hypatia – one of the first well-documented women in mathematics, and Rani Lakshmibai – queen of the Maratha-ruled princely state of Jhansi and one of the leading individuals in the 1857 Indian mutinies against the British in India, do not? The curriculum at key stage 3, currently only mentions 5 token women, four of which are: Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole, George Eliot and Annie Besant. 5 women? Is this really enough? Such a limited number is reductive in our understanding of women’s role in history, to say the least.
It is important to thoroughly explore and analyse the history of feminism, women’s rights and women’s involvement in pivotal historical events so that students do not come out of the classroom believing that women did not play a valuable role in world history. Women have been, and continue to be oppressed and subjugated due to their gender. This means that historically, the contribution of women, especially in academics and the arts, are often not well documented or mentioned in historical records. It is therefore even more important that we teach children from a young age the contributions women made despite their economic and social disadvantages.
To create a more effective history curriculum, we need to broaden the subject matter taught to children at GCSE and A Level. We need to leave a Eurocentric historical narrative and incorporate a larger, more accurate international context into the curriculum. One of the ways in which we can do this is by examining colonial empires, such as the British Empire in India, and critiquing colonial discourse in creating cultural and historical stereotypes about people of colour from ex-European colonies and in the Americas. We need to avoid tokenism in terms of the people of colour and women we learn about in the classroom. While it’s important to learn about slavery and individuals such as Seacole and Equiano, this is simply not enough. On top of including more women in the curriculum, it needs to be compulsory to study African, Asian and Middle Eastern civilisations in the history classroom so that children can develop respect, sensitivity and a cross-cultural understanding.