Isolation diary: Rewriting history

Anyone who thinks that removing statues is rewriting history should ask who wrote the history in the first place.

I wrote that sentence on Facebook this morning, having already (editorial privilege) read Paul Reynolds’ excellent article, in which he discusses the very many omissions in the current teaching of history.

My own experience of history in school was dire. I hated it, not least because of the way it was taught. The teacher spent almost every lesson dictating notes which we duly wrote down in our notebooks and attempted to remember for exams. At the end of the third year in secondary school we had to choose between History or Geography, so I chose the latter. As a result I studied no history later than the second Jacobite rebellion in 1745, and because I changed schools I actually studied that twice.

So I left school with huge gaps in my knowledge of 19th and 20th century history. For example, I didn’t know anything about the origins of Liberalism in the UK until I started reading J S Mill and others for my Philosophy degree. I didn’t understand the causes of the two World Wars and hadn’t heard of the Holocaust. I was living through the independence of former British colonies but hadn’t learned the history that would have explained why they had been coloured red on the map. I was denied any understanding of the importance of prime sources, or of historical method, and I didn’t appreciate that records were always created by the literate elite.

Of course, over my life I have gradually pieced together a lot of information about that period but still wish I had had a more formal foundation. I learnt that the history of wars is always written by the victors, so is inevitably skewed. And today’s political interference in the curriculum in the UK has striking parallels with the airbrushing of history practised by autocratic regimes.

Some years ago I read The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst. It takes an incident that happened in a family home in 1913 and tracks how it was remembered and interpreted by subsequent generations. The main character is a poet who was killed in the First World War, and as time goes on he becomes an almost mythical persona, and his secret gay life is re-evaluated. It can be read as a metaphor for way in which the ‘truths’ of history evolve over time.

History is a dynamic entity. It can reveal fascinating, and sometime contradictory, perspectives on events. It can mould our perceptions of other cultures, and of subcultures within our own. It can overlay the values of today upon actions in the past. But most of all it can be used to distort and subvert the truth when the facts are believed to undermine a dominant narrative.

The choice of what aspects of history should be included in the school curriculum is so important. History provides a framework and a methodology through which children can interpret their own and other cultures, and hence it impacts on their own identities. And if we have taken anything at all from the Black Lives Matter campaign it is that now is the time to reassess what is taught.






Please note

We have been in full self-isolation since 16th March to protect my husband whose immune system is compromised.

If you are in self-isolation then join the Lib Dems in self-isolation Facebook group.

You can find my previous Isolation diaries here.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Tony Greaves 18th Jun '20 - 5:06pm

    Quite so. Well said, Mary.

  • Paul Barker 18th Jun '20 - 5:44pm

    History is being continuously rewritten, its not just that a new Present gives new answers to old questions, even the questions change. History is what we feel & think about the Past & We keep changing.

    I sometimes think that we teach History the wrong way round, we should start with Here & Now & work outwards & backwards from there.

  • Innocent Bystander 18th Jun '20 - 6:02pm

    Now that Churchill is defined as an imperialist, racist bigot do you think there is any aspect of our nation’s long history we can present to our children with pride? or are we, justifiably, the world’s pariah?

  • Richard Underhill 18th Jun '20 - 6:59pm

    Well said, Mary.
    History and geography are really the same subject.
    I remember a history teacher who wanted us to remember dates. They were 1520, 1620 and 1720 without any meaningful content.
    Because I had opted for science as an alternative to history and geography There was one year in which we scientists learned some of the history of sciences, including the overturning of previous theories, including the persecution of by the then pope, with adverse consequences for the developing science of astronomy in Italy.
    There was also a series of begats in the old Testament which had been taken literally by non-mathematicians and needed to be overturned to understand the history of Egyptian pharaohs. We were not taught at school that the late Ian Paisley had worked as a missionary in Wales when others of his age were defending their country. When he said that the European Union is a Catholic conspiracy I said to David Ford, then APNI leader, that Paisley was ignoring Greece and Orthodox Christians.
    Since then Cyprus has joined the EU, as have Romania, and Bulgaria. The Roman Catholic Church has decided to take a long term view on a separation from the Orthodox which lasted about 1,000 years and which they would like to repair, but there are institutional and structural differences as well as differences of theology, some of them caused by differences of language. Who among our current Cabinet can read the Bible in Latin or Greek as Gladstone could (according to historian Roy Jenkins).
    Boris Al Johnson demonstrates a wide vocabulary in English, but he is not in a position to provide moral leadership.
    Knowledge of geography came with the teaching of history for the period 1900 – 1955 without expectation of formal examination, including the need for petrol and equivalents for the Axis forces and their consequent military ambitions, for instance in Romania and Egypt.

  • Richard Underhill 18th Jun '20 - 7:08pm

    Innocent Bystander 18th Jun ’20 – 6:02pm
    The history books correctly say that Winston Churchill did not want to grant independence to India, Pakistan, etc in the late 1930s.
    It happened under the Atlee government with heavy loss of life, known as partition.
    Later acts of independence happened under Harold MacMillan, although he played a part in the Suez crisis.

  • There are objective facts and then there are subjective judgement about those facts and then there is the question of which facts are selected for our consideration. One of the objects of education, in my view, is to enable people to distinguish one kind of “fact” from another. But please, lets not slip into the post modern error of assuming there is no objective reality and everything is a cultural construct.

  • Innocent Bystander 18th Jun '20 - 7:52pm

    Well Mary, nothing to tell the kids so far then. Churchill was a monster, so was Boudicca, I suppose Shakespeare is done for with the Merchant of Venice.
    The Battle of Britain was won by two Po!ish pilots and a Czech with the British pilots just getting in their way, the bombing of Gerrmany a foul war crime, and everything that has gone wrong in the world was our fault and we should make sure the world knows that. No wonder the word the English use most frequently is “Sorry”.
    I suppose it’s fair. To answer my own question all I can come up with to boast about is the World Cup ’66 and Robin Hood and I’m not even sure the ball was over the line anyway.

  • @Innocent Bystander – I don’t share your cynicism. The language we have given the world is incredibly rich, and has a much bigger vocabulary than any other language. Why? Because as a nation we have welcomed and assimilated so many other cultures and languages over the last 2000 years. I know that doesn’t sit well with our current, quite proper, concerns around imperialism and slavery, but there are other aspects to our culture that we can celebrate.
    And … I have played Shylock, as it happens. Shakespeare was showing how a lifetime of discrimination and prejudice can eat into a person; he gave him that insightful speech: “Hath not a Jew eyes?”

  • The Conservatives, working class Labour and Brexit party voters tend to be proud of their British history and would largely be against any change. If you go down this road in a general election campaign it won’t end well. It’s the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Mirror and Sun readers that decide how the country is run and they don’t appear to want change.

  • Innocent Bystander 18th Jun '20 - 10:00pm

    Thank you but it was irony I was going for rather than cynicism but probably overdid the subtlety thing.
    Mind you the only reason English is not a backwater language is that our vile colonial empire included North America and it doesn’t seem a huge achievement to be only remembered for a language made popular by a different country altogether.
    On a positive note we have given the world Morris Dancing and HP sauce so, in time, it may forgive us for trampling on one sixth of the world’s population.

  • “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh ?” ….. I like the tickle bit.

    As for Mr (not so) Innocent, time to get his teeth into that grand old Victorian Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem and wrote Boadicea’s speech as,

    “Burst the gates, and burn the palaces, break the works of the statuary,
    Take the hoary Roman head and shatter it, hold it abominable,
    Cut the Roman boy to pieces in his lust and voluptuousness,
    Lash the maiden into swooning, me they lash’d and humiliated,
    Chop the breasts from off the mother, dash the brains of the little one out,
    Up my Britons, on my chariot, on my chargers, trample them under us.”

  • History has its versions. I remember my history teacher at school who was in fact a Liberal, Mr Pin. In fact we would call his lessons Pinorama. I didn’t think he was that great a teacher, he would get the dates wrong, but now I recognise his methodology was ahead of his time and has become generally adopted.
    Julius Caesar standing on the beach said Britons painted themselves with blue paint. When I stand in the line at the airport check-in I often see a Briton with blue paint (tattoos) so somethings haven’t changed.

  • Innocent Bystander 19th Jun '20 - 8:03am

    David and Mary, (wasn’t that a pop group?),
    Anyway many thanks but I thought Shylock’s speech shone a light on discrimination but did him no good? Didn’t he have to convert to Christianity and hand over all his wealth?
    That won’t do at all. To rehabilitate Shakespeare we need to burn all those copies and rewrite it so Shylock gets a peerage and a series on the BBC. The Duke needs to be denounced and exiled over some historical #MeToo thing and the rest of the cast write a joint letter to the Times apologising for their conduct.
    Joe, I found that piece an interesting read. It has been said that if Hitler had died in 1938 history would anoint him the greatest ever German.

  • “Henry VIII was a very very bad man”…… well he was wasn’t he. Certainly a man to avoid with any thought of matrimony.

  • @Ruth Bright – thank you.
    @Innocent Bystander – no one comes out of things well in The Merchant (apart from Portia). Shakespeare was exploring prejudice, and quite correctly showed that the privileged (almost) always win. That doesn’t mean that he supported it. I find the Taming of the Shrew much more problematic.

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