Well meaning though it may be, I’m against teaching history to promote a shared identity

The historian Tristram Hunt has given a cautious welcome in the Times to Michael Gove’s controversial plans for the history curriculum in England,  (£) a topic I raised last month. This is interesting because Hunt is also a Labour MP and pro-Labour reaction to the Gove proposals was generally hostile. Hunt writes:

At the heart of the controversy is the question of Britishness. Critics suggest that in a modern, globalised world, dominated by China and India, it is backward and wrong-headed to promote some updated version of “Our Island Story”. Surely, tomorrow’s citizens should study Benin and Bangladesh as much as Great Britain?

In fact, in a multicultural society where civic ties are weaker, it is more important than ever to put British history above other national narratives. And it is vital to do so within the classroom as the traditional levers for inculcating a sense of the past — extended families; churches and chapels; Cubs and Scouts; political parties — are atrophying. A cohesive society requires a sense of national identity developed through a sympathetic and reflexive account of the British past.

As a social democrat Hunt is not in favour of the old Whig  pageant- of- English- history version  which presented Britain as the greatest democracy in the world  while ruling  “the  greatest Empire the world has ever seen”, without acknowledging any contradiction between the two claims.  He supports concentrating on British rather than “global” history as a means of strengthening declining “civic ties”. The course of English (sic) history may allow for this approach. It is a story of growth and expansion which had finally declined by the time of the Second World War, a fairly natural stop, with the coda of the post war period.  (Leave aside the casual equation of English with British, a topic for another day).

Versions of history that argue for a plague on both houses, over- emphasise victimhood  at the expense of  struggle and deny the appeal of revolution wouldn’t be history at all. So  can history reinforce – or in our case – help build – “civic ties”?  Is a civic approach to teaching  history  valid or a distortion ? If it is valid, how could it apply to divided Northern Ireland?  Who is thinking about it for schools, where any respectable version is bound to challenge the foundation myths of both states of Ireland and the course of events in the north?  Or is it happening already, more or less the same for Protestants as Catholics?  If so why does it seem to make so little impact at grass roots level, even Slugger level?

I’ve come across a fascinating set of researches on the teaching of history in Northern Ireland in 2007 supported by the “inter-board history panel.” It’s introduced by its editor Alan McCully of the University of Ulster. We’re not doing badly it seems,. although there appears to be no attempt to reach agreement on history as an agent for  community building. That lack of agreement may  do less harm than any attempt – surely doomed – to impose a bland poilitically correct orthodoxy.  Tell them the stories red in tooth and claw, give them the few  triumphs and the many  tragedies and keep them thinking and talking to their fellow students and their peers across the divide.  Below I offer isolated extracts which are no substitute for reading the whole thing. Just like history itself.

(The) history curriculum as introduced in 1990 provided teachers with a remit to address the community divisions in Northern Ireland through history teaching (and was being portrayed as such to our foreign visitors) yet it was obvious that, at least among the local teachers represented, there was no consensus as to the appropriateness of this aim. It has been my view ever since a forum be created whereby the history teaching community in the province can engage in informed debate on the nature and purpose of their craft in a society emerging from conflict. Such a debate appears even more necessary at a time when in-service provision is gathering momentum for the introduction of the Pathways  curriculum that even more prominently emphasises a social utilitarian role for history in our classrooms. Otherwise, there is a possibility of teacher resistance to curriculum that even more prominently emphasises a social utilitarian role for history in our classrooms. .., and teacher resistance  to what may be perceived by some as a distortion of the discipline for social ends.

It is important to recognise and acknowledge the contribution of history teachers in Northern Ireland to providing their pupils with an objective view of history, especially the history of these islands, during those decades when civil unrest was at its most intense.

Over the last ten or so years, as Northern Ireland has moved from conflict to something better, the two main communities have not yet resolved their differences and have not yet arrived at a position where each has sufficient knowledge and understanding of the other’s cultural and historical traditions. In addition, the migration to Northern Ireland of people from other countries has created further concerns as evidence of racism has compounded the sectarianism that, for many, has been too characteristic of Northern Ireland society as a whole. The challenge and opportunity for education is considerable, and not least for teachers of history.

During the decades of “The Troubles”, there was an understandable desire that schools should provide pupils with a safe haven away from the tension and fear of the streets. Furthermore, many teachers of history were understandably uncomfortable in bringing to the attention of their pupils controversial and contested issues relating to British and Irish history, especially those issues which were central to each community’s perception of its own cherished past. Other imperatives now apply, not least the emergence of Citizenship in the curriculum, and there is a strong case to be advanced that teachers of history should be much more proactive in raising with their pupils sensitive and contested issues relating to the history, culture and traditions of the two main communities in Northern Ireland, not to proselytise or “to improve community relations” but to ensure that pupils have a better knowledge and awareness of how key events in Irish and British history are perceived by each community, and how the past continues to be interpreted on the streets of Northern Ireland.


Keith C. Barton, University of Cincinnati

Educators in Northern Ireland should be able to build on students’ historical interest and knowledge rather than thinking that they are “blank slates” when it comes to history or that their historical understanding is dominated by sectarian narratives. At the same time, educators may want to consider whether developing a shared sense of identity—one that transcends the community divide—should become an explicit goal of the curriculum.


Students’ criteria for selecting events as historically significant reflected the social context of history in Northern Ireland, but for the most part, their ideas were not simple reflections of either Unionist or Nationalist viewpoints.

Among students at both schools, the most common reason for selecting an event as historically significant was the extent of death or hardship involved (regardless of the community affected), and in many cases this was explicitly linked to the need for remembrance.


…more common among Protestant students, was the role of historical events in creating the demographic and political makeup of Northern Ireland; Catholics, on the other hand, were more likely to stress events that symbolised the need for rights, fairness, and equality. Finally, students from both schools often noted the importance of events that brought Catholics and Protestants together in the past or that had the potential for bringing about peace in the future. Girls, meanwhile, were more likely to emphasise themes of remembrance, cooperation, and inequality, while boys were more likely to refer to community conflict or the political and demographic origins of the state.

For educators who hope that historical study may contribute to peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, the findings of this study are encouraging, because they suggest that young people are not overly committed to sectarian historical perspectives and that they apply their criteria of significance to members of both communities. Educators might capitalise on students’ ideas by studying the impact of political violence on both communities, and by highlighting instances of Catholic and Protestant cooperation in history.


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