‘A bundle of silences’: The power of history-teaching

History – pertaining to the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves – occupies a central role in our National Curriculum as a means of engendering social cohesion and embedding ‘Fundamental British Values’. Accordingly, the timelines we learn and interpretations we absorb are expected to aggregate to form the cornerstone of our national identity. Yet, these narratives inculcated as fact conceal a deeply unsavoury historical truth: that history is not an objective assortment or facts but an inherently exclusionary enterprise. As we scrutinise the privileging of teaching about the Tudors, British economic innovations, ‘victory’ in the World Wars – while effacing marginalised demographics in society and the exploitative processes these periods witnessed – the profoundly political nature of history becomes clear. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot pertinently exposed, history is written by the victors, and each narrative is marked by ‘a bundle of silences’.


It takes merely a cursory glance at Britain’s state-endorsed GCSE History textbooks to appreciate their partial rendering of the nation’s past. While championing notions of rigour and complexity, the National Curriculum rules that students must ‘know and understand the history of these islands as a coherent, chronological narrative’ – one that necessitates an understanding of the Church’s influence, British industrial power, and the challenges the nation has faced since 1901. Not only is just one study of another ‘significant society or issue’ required, but colonial stories and inclusive histories of long-term immigration are either considered non-statutory or effaced completely.


By constructing history as a linear framework, our education system elides the inherently conflictual nature of the discipline and subscribes to what Freire terms the ‘banking model’ of education. This conceives of students as receptacles of knowledge, imparting onto them a static view of reality as the logical outcome of a series of events. Such a disempowering practice teaches us that the story of ‘our island’ is already written – fitting neatly into essentialised categories of continuity and change which seemingly mark objective truths about ‘our’ fortunes. But underlying these assumptions is the unsettling fact that history is more than this: it is a story of the winners, the triumphant, and the powerful.


The exclusions this curriculum embeds – naturalises, even – matter. With history’s undeniable influence on the transmission of cultural heritage and national identity, who and what we value as relevant becomes a subject of profound importance. Nowhere is this clearer than in the systematic evasion of Black voices from the teaching of British history. With the removal of Black History’s required inclusion in the curriculum in 2013 by Michael Gove, the Conservative government has sought to both distance itself from Britain’s historical processes of dispossession and normalise a white-washed account of its past. It is thus symbolic that while 86.2% of people in the UK reported learning about the Tudors in school, 7.6% learnt about the colonisation of Africa.


Where Black History does appear within the curriculum, it is often ‘othered’ in content and practice. As well as covering the slave trade, secondary schools consider the Civil Rights movement in relation to tokenistic figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. – both of which construct Black History as a unit divorced from the rest of the curriculum. This ignores the presence and importance of BAME peoples within British history, from their sacrifices during the World Wars to their valuable labour during post-war reconstruction. Evidently, amidst the government’s ’cultural restorationism’ in opposition to multiculturalism, little progress has been made since the Macpherson Report of 1999 (which critiqued institutional racism and problematised the lack of diverse voices within the curriculum).


Compounding this process of othering is the mode of teaching applied to such units. Replete with microaggressions towards BAME students, teachers have been shown to abandon traditional methods during the teaching of slavery in Black History Month in favour of a more sensory and simplistic approach. This reflects teachers’ paucity of knowledge about the content, as well as the racism embedded within a system which reproduces inadequate knowledge about Black History. Tellingly, Durham Associate Professor Dr Nadena Doharty’s research has repeatedly shown that racist humour, stereotyping, and micro-assaults pervade teaching practices, which serve to reinforce Black students’ racialised experience of the education system.


While there is tentative evidence of change – reflected in Pearson’s inclusion of a new unit on migrants in Britain and Notting Hill – a broader systemic change is necessary to undermine the hegemonic influence of the ‘our island story’ in determining what is valued in the curriculum. With 74% of schools rarely or never teaching Black British History, this requires educating teachers about the gaps in their own knowledge, and recognising the Foucauldian linkage of knowledge and power.


This is not to say that communities in Britain have not resisted the prevailing epistemic domination within the education system. Since the mid-1960s, Black parents have pioneered supplementary schools in which their histories are understood and shared rather than restricted to the periphery. The Black Lives Matter movement – galvanised in 2020 by the murder of George Floyd – also served to reignite debates about the political significance of the National Curriculum’s exclusions and illuminate the importance of championing more inclusive histories.


As the government continues to promote ‘the spread of Britain’s influence for good in the world’ as a benign imperial power, we must question both the positive rendering of its military history and the evasion of voices according to gender, race, class, sexuality, and disability. A diverse and inclusive curriculum is a prerequisite for a socially cohesive Britain, and we cannot hope to transcend its deep-rooted institutional exclusions without reckoning with the biased nature of the curriculum. After over a century of normalising exclusionary discourses within the history curriculum, it is time to address and overcome the ‘silences’ we have repeatedly embraced.


Featured image: Tom Podmore on Unsplash.

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