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Teaching of colonial history

July 30, 2020 11:54 AM
By Merlene Emerson in Libdem Voice

Map of British EmpireI have been championing the teaching of black and colonial history in schools for as long as I can remember and was a member of the task force set up in 2012 under Baroness Meral Ece on Race Equality in Education and Employment. Through learning about the impact and legacy of colonialism, we can forge a modern British identity, bridge past divisions as well as better inform Britain's dealings with the rest of the world.

I had previously held a benign view of the Commonwealth legacy. Today Singapore students rank in the top 3 places on OECD's PISA league tables for schools, while 16 and 18 year olds still subscribe to the Cambridge board examinations. It meant I could, when aged 18, move with ease to London to study law.

The legacy of empire is controversial but the spread and use of the English language as the lingua franca is undoubtedly a positive. The introduction of maritime trade links, development of ports and rail infrastructure are other commendable outcomes. There is also a "Commonwealth advantage" where countries with similar legal systems, professional training and a common language are better able to trade with each other across continents.

On the flip side (as the Black Lives Matter movement has brought into sharp focus), the slave trade promoted across the Atlantic between the 16th and 19th centuries has led to entrenched racism and inequalities. Though other colonial powers were involved, the British had played a key role in transporting 12.5 million Africans to plantations in the Americas, with some 2 million dying en route. When the slave trade finally ended, it was the slave owners who were compensated, not the victims and their families.

Last week (21 July) a group of historians called for sections of the UK's Home Office "Life in the UK" Citizenship and Settlement test to be amended. They said that the official handbook is fundamentally misleading and in places false. Whilst we cannot judge the actions of the past by the morals and values of today, we must at least broach the subject with honesty, encourage debate and be prepared to hear from those who have been affected. Only in so doing will we be in a position to view the world as it is, not through neo-imperial blinkered eyes.

What we need is a review of the school curriculum with new thinking and sensibilities in a whole range of subjects, not just in history, but also in geography and science, literature and art, current affairs and citizenship classes. If Covid19 is a trigger for a hiatus to build back better, then the school curriculum is definitely a good place to start.