Why History Education is Important

While much of the current news is focused on the war in Ukraine (and of course it is important to oppose Putin’s imperialism), I want to do a blogpost on education policy and how it is being used to further the interests of the Right and white supremacists. In a broad sense, the Right has long viewed history education as a threat. Or perhaps it is more that they view the teaching of white supremacy and racism as a threat to the institutions they have created which are, in fact, white supremacist and racist. In the US, there have been debates over Critical Race Theory (CRT) as the Right argues that it serves as a divisive tool and denigrates the narrative of US (and by implication white) supremacy. But surely, we should be teaching children about slavery, police brutality and the continuing oppression of people of colour at the hands of institutions that primarily serve a rich white male elite. At its core, all CRT says is that race and racism are at the heart of US laws and institutions, something that seems blindingly obvious to those with knowledge of US history. In opposing CRT and teaching about race and white privilege, the Right is implicitly declaring its support for white supremacy and encouraging students to be mindless supporters of US imperialism and racism. When the Right cries about how history is taught, what they are crying about is that anyone would dare teach students critical thinking or dare to criticize institutions that disproportionately benefit white people.

I now want to turn to the UK, where this disturbing trend of the Right implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) supporting white supremacy through education continues. This month, in February 2022, the Department of Education in the UK released new guidance calling on teachers to teach topics that might be contentious such as “imperialism” or “empire” in a “balanced manner.” This is an incredibly provocative and dangerous position to take. Clearly, “balanced” is the Right implicitly saying that the British Empire should not be criticized too much because it brought civilization and prosperity to the savages. If Britain continues to uphold this deeply problematic and racialized worldview of the “civilizing mission” then how can the UK ever hope to address the pervasive racism within its own borders? In 2019–20, figures revealed that the police are nine times more likely to stop and search black people when compared with white people. The Covid-19 pandemic has also revealed racial inequalities as black and other minority ethnic people were more likely to work in jobs that left them more exposed to the pandemic when compared with white people. This racialized oppression has systemic roots in institutions that are white supremacist (like the police force) but the current Tory government does not want this taught in schools. They do not want students to see how the British state in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries created an empire that marginalized people of colour all over the world for the benefit of white British capitalists. They do not want children to be taught about the Mau Mau rebellion where the British colonial government tortured and detained 1.5 million Kenyans in the 1950s who wanted independence from the British empire.

In declaring their new education guidance for teachers, the British government also put their white supremacy on display by saying teachers cannot support Black Lives Matter because it “goes beyond the basic shared principle that racism is unacceptable.” This seems like a truly shocking statement considering that by no means is Black Lives Matter calling for armed revolution against the status quo. On the website, BLM says “we are working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically targeted for demise” and “we affirm the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.” Thus, by saying teachers cannot express support for Black Lives Matter, the government is at least implicitly stating that it supports targeting Black lives for demise. Certainly, in policing, the UK has systematically targeted Black lives. BLM also centers people historically marginalized even within the Black liberation and black civil rights movements such as trans people, disabled people, and all people along the gender spectrum. By opposing BLM, the UK government is affirming its commitment to the fact that those historically marginalized people’s lives matter less than those of white, heterosexual people. Clearly, then the Tories in the UK are supportive of maintaining the deeply racist, sexist and homophobic status quo within powerful institutions.

History education really is so vitally important for developing critical thinking, especially with regards to critiquing one’s own country. From a young age, I remember how media and the government shouted from the hills about how the US is the greatest country ever and has great freedom and prosperity for everyone. Learning US history in high school was a major way in which I began to question this mindset that I had been brought up in. How could a country which precipitated the genocide of indigenous peoples and topple democratically elected governments in Latin America really be the greatest country ever? The Right wants to quash this kind of critical questioning and promote unthinking nationalism (Brexit with Johnson and Make America Great Again with Trump). If the extremely unequal and unjust status quo is to be overturned for a more just society, then education will have to play a large role. If students are educated about what happened in their country’s past, they can then see how politicians in the present day exacerbate historical inequalities or strengthen historically white supremacist institutions.

I am not so naïve that I think education alone can completely transform society, but it is certainly an important part of fighting for justice. It is important to call out attempts to entrench white supremacy even further into the education system as the UK is doing with its recent guidance and the US has done with its critique of CRT. When people point out how the US and UK are so wealthy, we must question why that is. How has their exploitation of the Global South generated that wealth (and distributed it to an increasingly small rich, white elite or as Bernie Sanders likes to call it the 1%)? These kinds of questions generate critical thinking of material, racial and gendered based conditions of inequality. Education, at least in my case, has helped me realize that the world is deeply messed up and oftentimes white supremacist, but this does not have to be how it is forever. We must remain critical of our institutions and demand sweeping changes to the status quo. The principles outlined by BLM seem like a good place to start.

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Andrew Barnett

Andrew Barnett

MSc Environment and Development Student at LSE. I write about political issues and personal things from a left-wing perspective.