10 August 2021

Teaching children our imperial past can help them understand Britain today

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Dr Samir Puri, author of 'The great imperial hangover', argues that children must be taught the history of Britain's imperial legacies if they are to understand the country they live in today.

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Steve Ballinger
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It seems faintly absurd to try to build bridges in Britain’s ongoing debate about the legacies of Empire. A yawning chasm between polarised views of Britain’s imperial heritage has widened further this last year. Firestorms routinely erupt in public debate at the mere mention of removing statues, of investigating profits from the slave trade, or when encountering hackneyed counterarguments like ‘what about the railways we built?’ and ‘at least our Empire wasn’t as bad as the Nazis’.

Britain’s rhetorical relationship with its former empire is a minefield of tropes. If there is a sensible middle ground of opinion it has long since been drowned out by those with the loudest voices. Some on the left are convinced that they can trace a direct causal relationship from the endemic racism of the British Empire in its non-while colonies to modern racism in Britain. The left, energised by the Black Lives Matter protests, want modern Britain to severely admonish itself over its imperial legacies.

Conversely, some people on the right interpret this as an assault on British heritage, a victory of minority views over a patriotic majority who see a messy but virtuous progression between Empire, the global diffusion of the English language and British institutions, and victory in the World Wars. These rightist rejoinders to criticism of Empire also point out that Britain was hardly alone in annexing colonies. By the way, they add, Britannia was a Roman colony between 43 and 410 AD — and since we aren’t complaining about our distant ancestors being colonised, why are you?

As I investigate in The Great Imperial Hangover, the Roman Empire gambit is an absurd counterargument. Two millennia have elapsed since then; proximity to history matters greatly in how imperial legacies are felt by present generations. Many British people have memories of having been born in British colonies, or whose parents’ transit from the Caribbean, East African or South Asian colonies to the UK is seared in their formative experiences

It is still very recent. Most British colonies were granted independence in a fifty-year period — from India’s Partition in August 1947 to the handover of Hong Kong to China in July 1997. Many non-white Britons from the millennial generation have clear connections to the end of Empire, although these connections will have slipped further into the past for those children of Generation Z.

This is why it is so timely to reconsider how we teach the history of the British Empire to current and future generations. No matter where you stand on the debate there must be one thing we can all agree on — that the bitter arguments about the British Empire currently waged by adults on Twitter and in op-ed pages shouldn’t poison how we teach history to those who are mere infants and to those yet to be born.

Reforming the history curriculum is, by definition, a future-focused project. The priority should be to identify the basic building blocks of knowledge that children will need in order to understand their place in the UK, and to understand the UK’s place in the world. This means introducing them to the Empire and its myriad legacies; and most urgently to its modern history, when the colonies were freed and large-scale Commonwealth immigration hugely expanded the racial diversity of Britain.

It is an essential civic duty of education to provide children with the facts that help explain why modern Britain is racially diverse.  Children should understand the circumstances in which the ancestors of their non-white classmates and future work-mates came to Britain; and that many non-white Britons arrived as the colonies were being dismantled, not as immigrants but as British subjects, often labouring in the cause of Britain’s post-war recovery.

But this is hardly the whole story. Education reform around the Empire cannot be approached solely from the prism of the imperial ancestry of many non-white Britons, and the privations and racism they encountered. This is vital but there’s more, for instance Britain’s relationship with the white-majority former colonies of Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Do we teach children why the British monarch remains head of state to 16 Commonwealth countries, and indeed what the Commonwealth even is? Conveying these facts is important, just as it is vital to cover earlier waves of immigration, notably Jewish and Irish.

Educating young Britons about the ‘origin stories’ of our multilayered population begins but does not end with the British Empire. Those of Polish backgrounds recently overtook Indians as the single largest minority community in Britain. This is the outcome of the 17 years between Poland joining the European Union in 2004 and Britain’s departure from the EU in 2021. Why did so many Poles and people from other East European countries leave their homes and make use of the EU’s freedom of movement? The story here is of the collapse of an entirely different empire, the USSR, which, in 46 years between victory in the Second World War and its collapse in 1991, occupied and contributed to impoverishing Eastern Europe.

I worked in Eastern Europe for a year in a previous profession. I heard from Polish, Romanian and Hungarian colleagues of their historical experiences, of the imperial collapse that mattered most to them, and their aspirational perceptions of Western European countries. My time in Eastern Europe convinced me that an obsession solely with the British Empire’s legacies is nonsensical and myopic, since the modern world is an outcome of many imperial collapses.

And it’s not just imperial collapses. Britain also hosts large Somali communities and many people with origins in the Balkans, whose countries have faced civil war and collapse. The British Empire has very little direct relevance here to the arrival of these communities to Britain.

We cannot squeeze all of this information into Key Stage 3 history, and nor should we even try. But we can think about the other subjects in which to teach vital facts around how the British population has come to be so diverse, paying attention to the actual diversity of Britain and not just an imaged version of it.

Education and the Empire cannot involve trying to get one side of the currently polarised debate to ‘win’. Why on earth would we expose our children to such a toxic argument, fully imposing an ‘Empire was evil’ or an ‘Empire was noble’ ideology? These factions are so fully entrenched, and so confident in their own collection of historical data, that neither side can storm the ramparts of the other to claim a decisive victory. These are arguments for adults to indulge themselves with. Our civic duty to educating future generations demands different approaches, wider perspectives and rather more wisdom than a simple tug-of-war debate over the inequities of the British Empire.

Dr Samir Puri is the author of ‘The Great Imperial Hangover’These personal views of the author do not represent any institutional affiliation. Dr Puri spoke at the recent British Future event ‘Teaching modern Britain: How can the curriculum include us all?’ – you can watch a recording the event below.