The Danger of a Single Story

‘Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign,’ said Chimamanda Adichie in a great lecture a few years ago, ‘but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.’

The lecture has been attractively summarised by Annie Brown, a teacher in Los Angeles, on the website of Facing History and Ourselves (http://lanetwork.facinghistory.org/the-danger-of-a-single-story-2/). She has also described a Global Studies course for eighth-grade students in which she used a video of the lecture together with, amongst other resources, Rudyard Kipling’s wry reflections on national and cultural stereotypes: ‘All good people agree/ And all good people say/ All nice people like us are We/ And everyone else is They.’

The dangers of single stories were powerfully and entertainingly rehearsed by Simon Schama in his lecture last week at the Hay Festival. Thanks to the valuable efforts of the History Works website there’s a transcript of the lecture at http://historyworks.tv/news/2013/06/04/history_curriculum_debate_updates_new_bbc_r3_night/

Schama spoke inspiringly about the purposes and importance of history teaching in schools and ridiculed the proposals for the history curriculum made recently by the government, for example the proposal that all children should study ‘Clive of India’. Robert Clive, said Schama, ‘was a sociopathic, corrupt thug, whose business in India was essentially to enrich himself, his co-soldiers and traders as quickly and outrageously as possible. He makes Fred Goodwin look like a combination of Mary Poppins and Jesus Christ by comparison.’

Schama gave several descriptions of wonderful history lessons he had witnessed recently. Of one he commented: ‘This was not a dumbing down or a vulgarisation of a knotty historical question, because buried in there the teacher was doing exactly what great history teachers do, namely telling a story that generates questions. That is what history is – it is storytelling that generates an analytical sensibility, and serious, deep, profound, questions.’

A similarly thorough, powerful and inspiring critique of the government’s approach has been published this week by Katherine Edwards on the Left Central website (http://leftcentral.org.uk/2013/06/03/big-brothers-passion-for-history-and-what-it-reveals-about-us/#more-3465). ‘History,’ she comments, ‘can supply the material, most obviously the heroes and heroines, for all kinds of causes: racial superiority, proletarian consciousness, nationalism, religious claims. It can raise, legitimise and glorify certain groups, perspectives and ideas, while marginalising others.’ Recalling and commending George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four she points out that Orwell ‘brings home to us the extraordinary power that history confers. He raises the question of whether the desire by government to control public understanding of the past is compatible with a genuine commitment to democracy … If, as Orwell wrote, the most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history, the fact that the new history curriculum marginalises women and non-white ethnic groups acquires an added poignancy.’

Katherine Edwards concludes: ‘The human urge to turn to the past for legitimation, for authority and for ammunition, makes it vitally important that whoever has ultimate say over the drafting of the history curriculum approaches the task with caution, humility and intellectual integrity … We are currently in danger of permitting government appropriation of the past, with the opposition and most of the academic community (with some prominent exceptions) largely silent, and many elements in the press actively supporting its appropriation. Before we surrender this element of our democratic freedom, and hand over to this government control over the next generation’s understanding of history, Orwell’s haunting dystopia should give us pause.’

For further reflections and comment about the current debate about history teaching in schools, see ‘But aunt, she is so very ignorant’ at http://www.insted.co.uk/very-ignorant.pdf.

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