Posts tagged ‘British history’

August 31, 2017

The Englishman Dr Livingstone, I presume: the unmaking of a nation through its school history

Myths and truths about Scottish History in Schools

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There is a fairly widespread belief that Scottish history has not, until recently, been taught in our schools. This is not true. Let me qualify that. From the earliest days of informal schooling an amount of storytelling doubtless crept into lessons; the exploits of national heroes and heroines until history as a discrete subject was formalised in the 1880s.

Most Scottish children since then were made familiar with some aspects of our past even if that amounted to little more than fleeting references to a handful of monarchs and a few notable battles. Granted among the baby-boomer generation it might have been for some their only encounter with Scottish history, any history, was at primary school – taught by non-specialist teachers in the main. Before the introduction of O Grades in 1962 thousands of Scots children could have left school with their leaving certificate having been taught no history at their junior secondary school and even with O Grades, later S Grades, it was possible for children to get no history after second year.

Does it matter? There are plenty who claim history serves no purpose and time in school would be better taken up teaching maths and science. Consider then waking up one day your memory has gone from an accident or Alzheimer’s disease with you having to make your way ignorant of what you’ve done and who you are. A clean sheet. Make of it what you can. Welcome to a world devoid of history.

Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. (Machiavelli)

Even though we are too stupid to learn from those who came before us Machiavelli might have added but did not.

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The actions of our forefathers and foremothers laid the foundations of the lives we lead today. It is useful to understand that process. What we learn of the nation’s past defines our perception of it then and now and our understanding of how our world has evolved – and in that those who argue Scottish children have not been taught their own history are correct to some extent.

History is not a series of facts strung together along a timeline. Although that’s how it has sometimes been presented. It is a muddle of events – a smorgasbord picked over by people who fancy themselves a bit of this and a bit of that. History can be simply entertaining – stories of adventure and discovery and it can be a powerful tool for propaganda. Propaganda of the past is all around us – shops are full of it, radio and television, too, complete with a telegenic communicators eagerly offering their carefully chosen morsels to seduce you into falling for their particular bees in their particular bonnets. My advice is treat with caution. No telling of history is ever neutral – the very facts presented have been selected at the expense of others that don’t fit the message. Scrutinise the historian and ask yourself why she/he is saying this/that/whatever and not something entirely different. Historians are not always transparent – what is it they aren’t telling us? And why have they couched their interpretation of events in that way?

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Despite (almost) every child in Scotland attending school at some point in their lives too many adult Scots are unfortunately ignorant about education – what goes on now and even when they were in the thick of it. Memories are patchy and woefully unreliable. How many Scots have I heard going on about their O Level passes when they never sat any but took O Grades, unless they attended private school? How many Scots bemoan Highers as inferior to the English A Level blissfully unaware the Higher was set to be taken a year earlier than A Levels and the reason ordinary university courses in Scotland were longer than their English equivalents?

There are also those who go on about the national curriculum unaware that there is no prescribed national curriculum in Scotland instead a huge amount of leeway is provided to specialist teachers to use their initiative within guidelines and constraints of the exam system and the reason why some people’s experience of history will be different from others. What you were taught depended a great deal on your history teacher and it might be you went to one of the very few schools, in the west of Scotland I understand, where the openness of the curriculum allowed history to be removed altogether from secondary years one and two. Moronic. Also moronic was the introduction of faculty heads to replace discrete department principal teachers giving rise to the ludicrous situation whereby the history department of a school could be run by someone who dumped history to become better acquainted with a football. Few primary teachers will have been specialists in history but all secondary teachers should be. However that is a great big rag bag in itself.

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Teachers and what they teach is only as good as their own learning and the resources available to them. Just where do you find quality materials to teach a range of topics to pupils whose ages range between 12 and 18? No history teachers enters the profession equipped with an expansive knowledge of every topic required in the classroom so where to find material? Books you may reasonably say. Wouldn’t that be lovely? Books are expensive and teachers have a tiny budget that always fails to cover the essentials to teach everything covered in years one to six. Books get destroyed, lost and tatty and even history books become out-dated. This is why so many teachers make up their own worksheets – and we have all experienced how iffy that can be. But even worksheets are expensive to create given the budgets available and they have a short shelf life.  

That said there was a time when reasonable supplies of  books were to be found in classrooms. Many were published in England and were almost like foreign texts. What is taught as ‘British’ history does not always sit well in the Scottish classroom. For example an awful lot, let me repeat that, an awful lot of histories written by English teachers and/or historians largely ignore Scotland. Try finding examples of everyday life in the Victorian period – it’s as if everyone in the UK lived in London or Manchester. Look at histories of the Napoleonic wars – presented as English wars fought by Englishmen on the other side of the English Channel. What, historian Sydney Wood, asks

“… went through the mind of the Scot from Lewis who was required to haul aloft Nelson’s pre-Trafalgar signal of ‘England expects every man to do his duty?”

Wood goes on

“At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Convention of Scottish Burghs (1905) complained of the existence of school books in which: Great Britain is called England, the British throne is called the English throne … David Livingstone is called an Englishman, James Watt and Adam Smith are called English.”

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To that list we might add were there no Chartists active in Scotland organising for democracy? Were Scots instead quietly sitting at home supping porridge? In British histories Scotland is excised again and again. That literary tick of substituting English for British, England for Britain produces an untrue twist on its narrative of the lives of our ancestors in these islands yet there it is on a page in black and white so it must be true. Such crass sloppiness is everywhere from Oxbridge dons to daft little-Englanders cheering on England’s Brexit from the EU.

What did you learn in school today dear little boy of mine?

I learnt that the government of Britain was English and that in England both parties, Liberals and Conservatives, favoured peaceful progress and social reform unlike most countries of Europe afflicted by conflicts and political revolution.

I learnt that Dr David Livingstone from Blantyre was English.

I learnt that the poet Lord Byron was English because he had an English father (and Scottish mother) and he was born in England.

I learnt that the philosopher economist John Stuart Mill was English because he had a Scottish father – uhm – but he was born in England so he was definitely English.

I learnt that the writer Rudyard Kipling was English because he had an English father and was born in India – but couldn’t possibly have been Indian because he was English, after all.

History our flexible friend.

For most Scots Scottish history in primary and the early stages of secondary school was very well covered – but it was a case of pupil beware.

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I don’t know who Flora Forbes MA was but her Past and Present books, published by John Cormack of Edinburgh presented a very unionist interpretation of Scotland (but then so did they all.) She wrote of an “angry” Scottish Parliament demanding equality with England over trade and shipping at the adoption of the Hanoverians and how “moderate men” saw the sense of a union of the two parliaments. She did not mention the storm of opposition to this in Scotland but noted Scots “naturally feared that England would once again deal unfairly with the smaller country.” Perish the thought.

On Mary, Queen of Scots and the English Queen Elizabeth she wrote:

“When Queen Elizabeth began to reign, England was not yet in a settled condition with regard to the religion of the people. Although the government was Protestant, half of the people were Catholics, and they believed Mary Stewart to be their rightful queen. Elizabeth’s task in ruling the country was therefore far from easy, but she proved to be a wise and clever ruler, and she was helped in the work of government by very able men.”

Some might call them liars, conspirers and charlatans but there you go.

Not all Scottish school textbooks were as partial and sickeningly obsequious as Ms Forbes’s efforts.

Scotland the age of achievement Hogarth's contrast

John Patrick’s SCOTLAND  the age of achievement was less whimsical and more authoritative (nothing to do with him being a bloke.) A lecturer at Aberdeen College of Education he used Hogarth’s drawing which contrasted poverty in Scotland – the ill-fed Scot – against the prosperity of the well-fed Londoner inside the cover. “Many English cartoons in the eighteenth century made fun of Scotland’s poverty,” he explained.

Patrick took a responsible approach to the scoundrels of Scottish history in his account of the trials of 18th century reformers Muir and Palmer and we are left in no doubt who he believed was the scoundrel in that episode. In his summing up the hanging Lord Braxfield intent on suppressing sedition addressed the court:

“…the government “is made of landed interests, which alone has a right to be represented; as for the rabble, who have nothing but personal property, what hold has the nation of them?”

Ah the witty and respected judge Braxfield set the tone for a fair trial-

“Come awa, sirs and help us hang these rascals…”

Rascals were people who dared to criticise the monarchy and corrupt governments made up of the landed gentry in government to enhance their own interests and shitting themselves that revolution in France might prove to be contagious. Dundee minister Palmer was sentenced to 7 years transportation and lawyer Muir to 14 years.

IMM Macphail, A History of Scotland Book 1, 1950s

Many of you will surely have been familiar with A.D. Cameron’s History for Young Scots Books 1 and 2 which were widely used in primary and early stages secondary during the 1970s and ’80s and created a patchwork impression of Scotland from the Neolithic settlers at Skara Brae on the Orkney Islands to more recent time when the European Coal and Steel Community was held up as a beacon of hope for peace and prosperity in a coming-together of nations in the Common Market.

“Could Britain afford to remain outside such a large and vital market in Europe? Could she become a member without endangering her unique partnership with the other nations in the Commonwealth”  he asked without a question mark. Tut tut.

Cameron ended on a note of optimism explaining that Britain did join the European Economic Community and people found they could travel more freely and got on with one another. Where did that get us?

Cameron made up dialogue to inject life and human interest into what is sometimes dismissed as a dry subject.

“Here is food; here is plenty” the comment of a contented Skara Braen tucking into a mountainous whale as a wise old man surveys the scene on the beach, “There is food for many moons,” he declares with just a touch of Tonto from the Lone Ranger. Cameron was nothing if not confident in his statements for example he assured us the women of Skara Brae spent about an hour every day grinding corn into flour.

Patrick achievement

Cameron’s approach to school history was entertaining and his books were well-illustrated: Picts, Celts, Romans, Vikings, English, Wars of Independence, burghs and so on- to the Union –

Britain” – (hang on A D you mean England and Wales?) “was at war with France during Queen Anne’s reign, and the English, fearing the Scots” (not at war with France – just saying) “might select a king of their own and revive the ‘Auld Alliance’ with France, decided to allow the Scots free trade” – (which they had done their level best to destroy up till then) – “if they would consent to the creation of a British Parliament.”

Cameron fell into the British/English trap there did you notice?

Under the Union he informed us English and colonial markets were to be opened up to Scottish merchants and Scottish currency, weights and measures were abandoned in favour of English equivalents. Religion and law remained uniquely Scottish.

And with the Union an end was put to Scottish history – in a sense – that’s me, not Cameron.

Patrick, no Union

Cameron’s school histories were enjoyable and useful tools for teachers but frustrating for those parts of Scotland ignored in their pages. Pupils in Dundee, Aberdeen and areas north, northwest, south and east found little there to reflect the lives of their foremothers. The nature of the colossus that is history means inevitably there are gaps but where those same gaps are replicated a false impression of the past becomes entrenched into our minds: Cameron illustrated the widespread Highland Clearances with a snapshot of the Sutherland clearances at Strathnavar; Industrial Scotland was largely and predictably confined to the Clyde and west of Scotland. Cameron was a Principal Teacher of History at Inverness Royal Academy and should have known better. That’s all I know about A D Cameron.

 Aside from those unfortunates not offered history in a handful of secondary schools a perception that Scottish history was not taught might be because pupils chose not to study it as an O grade or Higher and simply forgot or because their teacher lazily churned out what she/he came across in muddled myth-laden textbooks entirely Anglo-centred: agricultural and industrial revolutions; social and political changes; housing; transport etc  – as far as the eye can see.

Historical events and change in England has always been taught in Scottish schools whereas in England Scotland seldom features – and usually only as that pesky aggressive neighbour to the north. Where Scottish histories have generally reflected Scotland as part of the United Kingdom English histories have a tendency to see England standing alone bold and magnificent – succeeding. European and World history as portrayed in history texts are seen through the lens of England and the English people with Scotland rarely a footnote.

There is no doubt that for much of the 20th century Scottish history has been much under-represented in our own schools while any Scottish dimension of British and world history virtually disappears south of the border. Can we wonder then at the sheer level of ignorance in England when it comes to Scotland? Watch as bemused smiles break out on the faces of quiz show contestants when asked anything relating to Scotland.

Historian Sydney Wood considered the role history education plays in the development of our sense of national identity – pointed to how Scotland’s education system retained its independence post-1707 until the English Education Act of 1872 gave London oversight of Scottish education right up to 1939.

Decades later Thatcher’s Tories tried to mould education to suit her rightwing agenda but found strong resistance in Scotland yet English Tories were able to wield some influence here. Devolution in 1997 returned education in Scotland to the responsibility of the Scottish government, albeit still following a unionist agenda.

It is true that teaching distinctly Scottish history tottered during the 20th century. Children might learn about early settlers – Skara Brae in the neolithic period and Stonehenge – but how many were taught about the sheer richness of neolithic evidence there is in Scotland? How many English children ever learnt about any early settlers in Scotland? Precious few. Vikings were mainly English Vikings. The Industrial Revolution took place mainly in England. Urban expansion and overcrowded homes were suffered in England. Poverty was English. No-one rioted in Scotland because they were starving. We were led to believe. Orator Henry Hunt and the Spa Fields (somewhere near London) riot over parliamentary reform (lack of) was drummed into the lugs of young Scots while in Scotland all was quiet – we were led to believe. Not that there has been much sympathy for rioters in history books – mad, angry, mobs, unruly, violent. As for the politicians whose actions led to such deprivation and inequality – they avoided pejorative adjectives attached to their activities.

Life expectancy as many Scots pupils once knew was very different between a man in Liverpool and one in Bath. Bath – Bath? Where’s that Miss?

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Every child in Scotland learnt about the Speenhamland system – a barbaric means by which magistrates in Berkshire in England provided charity to starving men, women and children. What was happening in Scotland? Scotland that impoverished neighbour of England? Presumably all was hunky dory.

Chartism was scarcely a whisper in Scotland – if you believe many of the histories taught in our schools. And in Scottish histories Chartism only occurred in Glasgow.

Scottish school children learnt about changes in English farming – the Norfolk system of crop rotation but who in England learnt about farm toons and run rigs?

Britain’s Story Told in Pictures printed in Manchester c1950. Brave to title the book Britain but let’s take through its chapters.

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I guess the authors were too busy putting the book together to visit Callanish standing stones or Orkney to become acquainted with its amazing Neolithic sites – or any of the unique recumbent stone circles of Aberdeenshire and other important features all around Scotland dating back over 5000 years. Let’s try the chapter Roman Britain. In what sounds like a national entity called Britain life was evidently most interesting in the south, as that’s all presented here. Picts of Caledonia get a single mention only in relation to Hadrian’s Wall not who they were of any reference to their pictorial art.

Let’s try Anglo-Saxon Britain 410-1066 – you can imagine I’m not too hopeful for this chapter. Aha, at least we have more definition as it begins with “The English are descended from the Angles, Saxons, Jutes…English conquest” blah, blah, blah…”English race” an interesting concept – especially given the previous paragraphs explaining the number of different peoples who’ve formed this ‘race’. I’m not expecting any mention of Scotland because this chapter doesn’t apply here – although Scots kids all learnt about it. But what is this? There’s a sketch of a Viking cross at Oransay, Scotland – that’ll be Oronsay I expect – and it’s what we call a Celtic cross and it dates from around 500 years after the chapter’s cut-off date. History our flexible friend again.

Chapter 4 looks at Medieval Britain 1066-1485 with not a cheep about Scottish royalty but everything you need to know and more about the line of English kings. There is a mention of Scotland in relation to the English Edward I. That’s it. There’s a nice drawing of a battering ram – know what I’d like to do with that – lots of Norman this and that. But hark! What comes here? It is an illustration of Robert the Bruce (again because of the association to England as is the case for the sketch of Joan of Arc.) So that’s it for Medieval Britain – must have passed Scotland by.

Tudor Britain up next and as Scotland didn’t do Tudors there’s no point looking here but I can’t resist having a wee peek. Elizabeth I of England, “greatest of the Tudors” and what’s this? “Foreign policy was directed against the menaces of Scotland, France and Spain.” That’s not very nice – first we’re all part of the British family then we’re a foreign enemy – again. Glowing it is – glowing in its admiration of Elizabeth I of England – and the advances in trade – Levant and East India, ne’er a hint of exploitation and stripping India of its assets …”Many universities and Grammar Schools were founded” – not a mention Aberdeen which between 1596 and 1826 had as many universities as in the whole of England. That’s worth putting in a book on Britain only it was in the wrong part of  ‘Britain’ evidently.

Scotland, Mary Queen of Scots, is included in Tudor Britain for some reason when it should be in a chapter called Stuart Britain – which comes next – and why? because it covers the period from 1603 when the Stuarts decamped to England. This is not a history of Britain it is a history of England – a bundle of baloney.

James VI is introduced as James I – because that’s his English regnal number and England precedes mention of Scotland because English historians know Scotland’s place. Back! Get back!

The Act of Union – I’ll get my magnifying glass out – straight FACT “Act of Union (1707). “By this Act the United Kingdom of Great Britain was established under a single government, Scotland being represented in Parliament by forty-five Members in the Commons and sixteen Peers in the Lords.” Parliament being in London,  not Edinburgh, naturally.

Culloden, the last pitched battle fought on British soil is a case of move along nothing of interest here. No mention. Sure there are sketches of the Duke of Cumberland – Butcher as he’s known here – and Charles Edward Stuart, “the Young Pretender” – note that slick derogatory description we’ve come to accept – not forgetting his old man, another Pretender. There’s a pic, too, of George I who “succeeded under the Act of Succession” aye he did – positive write-up we may say for George.

There’s a fine illustration of a Highlander – post Union – not doing what most Highlanders would have been doing at home whatever that might have been and we certainly don’t find out from this book but as a soldier from one of the Highland regiments which became so popular with successive governments of the United Kingdom. Not so much back! back! as get to the front! to the front!

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The chapter on Modern Britain pauses long enough to condemn the General Strike of 1926, to praise the national spirit, to picture the murder of a British bishop in Uganda, to comment on the notable growth of democracy during Victoria’s reign – notable being an elastic term for restricted. There are lots of pictures of ‘natives’ from the Empire – Zulus being war-like, ‘Kaffirs’ being obedient, a Maori looking a bit savage. There’s a head and shoulders of Cecil Rhodes, boo; Gordon of Khartum, boo; the cantilever bridge over the St Lawrence River at Quebec – but not the magnificent Forth Railway Bridge, boo – evidently a victim of being located in North Britain. There’s a sketch of a round table conference, at a long table, at which Mahatma Ghandi and his pals “demanded independence for India” – blighters. There’s mention of the “heroic Red army” in WWII, hurrah; there’s Lord Woolton representing rationing during WWII but no mention of John Boyd Orr. Shamefully predicatable.

If you were spared this sort of nonsense in place of real history at school be grateful.

It is apparent that generations of  Scottish schoolchildren left school better informed about the Nazis in Germany or the poor laws in England than they did about lives led by past generations of their families here in Scotland. Our ancestors were living breathing people very much like ourselves – dour or cheerful, cup half-full or cup half-empty types but Scotland, even a short historical hop back in time, was a very different place and it’s near impossible for us to really imagine their dreams, sorrows and pleasures. Our connections with the past are the vital means of securing our place in present-day Scottish society; understanding the route we have come to where our lives are today with a backward glance at patterns of struggle and achievement which form lessons for us now and into the future. It is a scandal that history has been so badly served since the formalisation of education in this country – that so much in history books is nonsense, jingoism and cant  – that knowledge of the Kirk post-Reformation; the Scottish Enlightenment; Scots in the Empire (warts and all); Scots in America – even events surrounding that most important detail were marginalised even here in Scotland, the Union of Parliaments, getting scant recognition until recent times. Why? You may well ask. And demand better. But, of course, sifting through the dross there are truths there to be found that should not be forgotten.

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