Is there space for minority voices in teaching about the past?

While British universities pride themselves as centres of international education and cosmopolitanism, an increasing number of voices in recent years have questioned the ‘global’ nature of the curriculums on offer.  A ‘global’ environment may be perceived by the extent to which it includes and continuously works towards promoting a truly diverse community. By questioning whether higher education in the UK is truly ‘global’, students around the country have begun a very important, and often neglected, conversation: which voices get to be heard in our education about the past? As a history student, my personal experience with  learning about the past at university has enabled me to reflect on whether (and how) diversity can be allowed institutionally. Universities are under pressure to diversify their history curricula and, as students, it is our responsibility to inform ourselves on this topic. However, it is even more important to look at the same problem at an earlier, and potentially more important, level: that of school education and minority voices. This article addresses the lack of diversity in university curriculums and argues that the teaching of history at schools must shift towards inclusivity and away from grand narratives. It additionally maintains that this shift is crucial in attracting students from more diverse  backgrounds to enrol in arts and humanities, and that it is the only way to combat the ‘us versus them’ mentality so prevalent in perceptions of both history and current events. 

An open letter addressed to the KCL History Department was circulated last year, calling for true decolonisation and diversification of third-year dissertation module choices. Many students co-signed the letter, pushing for a long-table discussion to ‘Decolonise KCL’. While the module choices did not change, students succeeded in establishing a precedent for a wider conversation surrounding the issue of diversity. This issue is particularly salient for Arts and Humanities subjects, whose teaching is largely at the discretion of the lecturers and, by extension, the university. Ranging from the opinions of the lecturer, to bigger issues regarding the diversity–or lack thereof–of the teaching staff, university education has neglected minority voices and continues to do so. While History Departments, our own included, can rightly argue that the geographical span of the taught histories has grown significantly more inclusive, geography is not the sole factor in supporting a ‘global’ curriculum. Perspective is important. For example, while the opportunity to study African or Latin American history is crucial, it is also vital that local histories–and not just those of the elites–are brought to the fore. Universities must therefore improve on a variety of fronts, from encouraging the exploration of local primary sources, memoirs, and interviews, to the inclusion of diverse voices in histories closer to home. 

A more positive development may be perceived in university students’ growing awareness of this problem, as well as the availability of means for them  to voice their complaints and advocate for change. This opportunity is, however, not available to school students studying a national curriculum. In the United Kingdom, students have to study history as a compulsory subject until the end of Key Stage 3 (Years 7, 8 and 9). After that, the choice of the subject is available at GCSE and A-Level, with a decreasing number of students selecting it in recent years. The reasons behind this decline are various and complicated, and undoubtedly include the issues of representation and diversity. As is often argued in the case of media, films, and popular culture, representation is crucial for people’s sense of belonging, especially for children. Therefore, the ability–or inability–to identify with the material taught in the classroom plays a major role in students’ attitudes towards the subject. According to a study by R. Harris and R. Reynolds, students from minority backgrounds generally ‘failed to understand history’s value’. After interviewing 102 students from schools across England, the study concludes that those from minority backgrounds felt no personal connection to the subject of history, which resulted in loss of interest. Different studies also conclude that history is one of  the least popular school subjects amongst pupils of Indian, Pakistani, and Black African descent in the UK. It is thus quite clear that the history taught in UK classrooms is non-inclusive and  predominantly white, and that this impacts student engagement. 

These curriculums not only alienate students from the subject of history, but may also have more damaging effects in the particular conceptions of society they shape and perpetuate. Young children will likely not consciously challenge or contemplate the ideas they are taught. However, it is crucial to highlight the importance of history in subconsciously shaping understandings of the present. For example, it is imperative that children from minority backgrounds are taught that they may proudly represent and learn about their own heritages while also fitting the ‘national’ standard. Concurrently, by teaching inclusive history, it becomes possible to shed light onto issues of intersectionality that are currently largely absent from the curriculum. For instance, in teaching  women’s activism, alongside the suffragette movement, schools could address the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent. While the purpose of the national education system is to present the ‘nation’s history’, it is increasingly important for policy makers to challenge the idea of a unified national history. Moving away from a ‘grand narrative’ of greatness and exceptionalism will make education more inviting. It would welcome students that were brought up being told family histories about the tragedies and hardships caused by the Empire, or the pride of the struggle towards universal suffrage in the U.S. Only through a more holistic education at an early age can society collectively grow more accepting of minority voices. 

Students, regardless of background, need to be exposed to more diverse perspectives of history. While this may lead to uncomfortable conversations regarding aspects of the past that portray the UK in a negative light,  there is nothing more honourable than acknowledging and discussing past inequalities, regrettable actions, and institutions or narratives of hate. Attempting to hide these narratives only serves to alienate students from minority backgrounds, who are left unable to relate to the material taught in their history classes. Ultimately, in an increasingly diverse and forward-looking society, educational institutions must strive to address more perspectives and perpetuate open, honest discourse about the past. 

Hari Dinis

Hari Dinis is the Researcher for the Education Policy Centre.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Department of Education and Skills, ‘Ethnicity and Education: The Evidence on Minority Ethnic Pupils aged 5–16’, https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/6306/7/0208-2006dom-en_Redacted.pdf (accessed on 08.02.2020)

Gov.UK, https://www.gov.uk/national-curriculum/key-stage-3-and-4 (accessed on 08.02.2020)

Harris, R. and Reynolds, R. (2014) ‘The history curriculum and its personal connection to students from minority ethnic  backgrounds’, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46 (4). pp. 464-486.

KCL Women in Politics, https://women-politics.com/2019/03/04/we-want-the-diversity-we-were-promised-an-open-letter-to-the-kcl-history-department/ (accessed on 08.02.2020)

The Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/a-level-subjects-students-english-humanities-arts-exams-gcse-science-maths-a8367956.html (accessed on 08.02.2020)

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