“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” This inspirational quote from Shakespeare is turned on its head by Glen Pearson, former Member of Parliament, who asks in contradiction; “What happens when we can no longer remember who we were?” Should we be tearing down Confederate monuments, or burning ‘offensive’ paintings at universities because the past is too horrific to remember? Is History somewhat an inconvenient truth that haunts our moral compass, much better that its voice be silenced? It is in this month of forced remembrance, November that I have begun to question how it is we teach History in school. As Winston Churchill said, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” The bias of the victor writing history, much to support their own agenda and legitimate the atrocities of war, impacts what children are taught and perpetuates the victor’s version of events.
Here in the United Kingdom, November starts off with a grizzly tradition of ‘celebrating bonfire night’ on the 5th known as such, because, on the night the gunpowder plot was foiled, bonfires were set alight to celebrate the safety of the King. Since then the event is venerated each year with fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire. Even more macabre, in the small town of Lewes, is the ceremonial blowing up of an image of Pope Paul V, the pontiff at the time.
In school children are lead to believe Fawkes was a sort of terrorist, without much context given to why he was driven to such extremes, being forced to practice his Catholic religion in secret and fined for not attending the Protestant church. One child asked why we continue to celebrate Fawkes’s persecution and it made me wonder, with the current political climate, if these mass gatherings are celebrating Fawkes’ execution, or honouring his attempt to dispose of the government?
Teaching children about the cause and effect relationship religious secularisation poses, is an ever more relevant topic as Religious Education becomes a simmering global issue; a taboo topic, with ever sensitive groups naysaying it, in the vain hope that in not talking about such things, it will prevent radicalisation. Holocaust denialists and conspiracy theorists are examples of the effect an imbalance of information given to people has.
Bonfire night, filled with loud bangs and bright fires, is followed up in contrast with 2 minutes of silence on Remembrance Day on the 11th of November, signifying the end of the First World War.
Sadly, the poppy, a symbol synonymous with remembrance has become embroiled in a somewhat nonsensical battle of political correctness over its colour. The white poppy, now more popular amongst today’s youth, promoting a message of peace, is seen as offensive to those who opt for the traditional red, promoting a message of remembrance of those who had made the ultimate sacrifice during times of war. Surely, the common ground between the two groups is in the name of ‘remembrance’, so long as we are looking back and reflecting on the past should that not be the core point?
So much of November’s history has been lost over the years due to political interference. For example; on the 16th of November 1724 the infamous Highwayman, Jack Sheppard, was hanged at Tyburn in London in front of a crowd of 200000 people, a third of the population of London at the time, so big was his celebrity. Jack was a notorious English thief and gaol-breaker during the early 18th-century; escaping from Gaol four times, most famously escaping from Newgate. The popularity of his tale, and the fear that others would be drawn to emulate his behaviour, led the authorities to refuse to license any plays in London with “Jack Sheppard” in the title for forty years*(Source: Wikipedia). His story, later revived, has never truly recovered and Jack drifts off to sleep eternally forgotten in St-Martins-In the Fields, interred into a catacomb with Robert Boyle and Thomas Chippendale (Aesop said: a man is known by the company he keeps, and in this instance, I find it rather ironic!)
Across the road from poor old Jack is the statue of Lord Nelson, erected on the 4th November 1843. This 60-metre column in Trafalgar Square is now threatened by the current trend in the US to tear down Confederate monuments. Nelson, like many men of his time, was ‘pro-slavery’ and the debate is, that because of that opinion he should be removed from the public space. I agree that slavery, a painful scar in human history, needs to be addressed, however this statue of Nelson was not erected to celebrate slavery, it was erected to commemorate a war hero, who defended the country and died in battle in defence of his homeland. Should that sacrifice not be remembered, should children in school not be taught about the Napoleonic wars?
On the topic of offensive monuments, I attended an interesting debate in South Africa, centred on the removal of the Cecil John Rhodes Statue during the Rhodes-Must-Fall campaign at the University of Cape Town. While Rhodes, a British businessman, mining magnate and politician in Africa, has far more to answer for than Lord Nelson in terms of character and misdeeds, I was interested in an idea offered by a speaker who thought, that instead of tearing the statue of Rhodes down, the University should rather, build a plinth next to it and erect Willie Bester’s Sarah Baartman statue, which has been in the universities art collection since 2001. Sarah was a Khoikhoi women who, due to her large buttocks, was exhibited as freak show attraction in 19th-century Europe. Sarah would hold the same space and command the same respect as her contemporary Rhodes, and by placing the two figures together, a conversation between the two racially and sexually polarized statues would be created. A new dialogue forced onto the viewers, making them confront their diverse history and engage in a meaningful debate.
It is important to distinguish then, when we teach History, that it is not a subject of facts, rather History is a record of a constant battle of opinions, the loudest drowning out the smaller voices, and their views forgotten. As educators, we need to be the unbiased bodies who give voice to the history on both sides.
The church and other government bodies are examples of how those in power have a desperate want to suppress information for their own aggrandizement or legitimization. History classes in the current day now shine a light on the previously muffled voices of Galileo and his contemporaries in the field of Science, previously quashed under the dark blanket of censorship. None more so evident, than in Darwin’s The Origins of Species, which was first published on the 24th November 1859. The theory of Evolution at the time stood in direct contrast to the views of the Church and still causes fractious debates between creationists and evolutionists today. So should schools teach both views? Would it be morally wrong to deprive children of scientific knowledge if their parents were adamant creationists? Who gets to decide what we should teach, to whom, and how?
Before Charles the 2nd came to power in 1660 printing was not strictly regulated however, this soon changed and in 1662 the Printing Act was introduced, specifying that every work must be licensed before it could be printed stunting the growth of this industry and handed the control of information and its dissemination back into the hands of the Church and government. The Act was only repealed much later in 1863, and to this day the UK press’s current freedoms are enshrined only within an oral constitution.
It is hard to imagine now, in an age full of technology and with information so readily available at our fingertips, that we are still held back by censorship, however subtle, and are still feed politically biased stories to further the agendas of those who feed us information. (Some companies, like Bell Pottinger, actually profiting from using the media as a tool to sew discord and spread false news stories to deliberately insight racial tensions, such was the case in South Africa.)It is with this in mind that we look at the importance of November 1665 when the first newspaper was published in England and with that the start of the dissemination of news, and with that, power.
The power of knowledge is tremendous, and therefore our role as educators becomes even more paramount, to be able to delve into this ever filling pool of new learning, and come out with true facts and balanced opinions so that the children in our care can learn and debate what it is we teach them. As Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
We cannot change History, however unpleasant, but we can learn from it. Without introspection, if we deny what has come before us, then as the old saying goes, we are bound to repeat it.