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 ( 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

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 ( ‘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


‘We Are The Many’

This weekend (1/2 June) the English Defence League will hold demonstrations in towns and cities across the country. By blaming all Muslims for the shocking murder in Woolwich last week they will attempt to shape and focus a prevailing climate of fear and rejection that has been growing now for many years. Stark evidence of the current climate is recorded this morning on the website of the Institute of Race Relations (

‘We the British people,’ says a declaration drafted by Hope not Hate and to be published tomorrow in the Daily Mirror (, ‘shun the EDL’s message of hate because they do not speak for us. We are confident that hope will prevail. It will prevail because they are the few, and we are – and always will be – the many.’

Such declarations are, yes, important. Also, of course, there’s much long-term and medium-term work to do to challenge and remove the climate of fear and rejection known as Islamophobia. The required work includes the kind of wonderful little initiative reported this week from York (, but much else besides. Various thoughts and resources for the medium-term and long-term work, particularly but not only in the education system, are listed in recently revised web pages on the Insted website ( The pages are extremely modest in relation to the overall task. They may nevertheless, hopefully, be useful.

Dreaming One Nation

David Goodhart’s book The British Dream is a work of polemical journalism and reportage, not of scholarship, and has strengths and weaknesses accordingly. The strengths are that there are many anecdotes and striking phrases, and there’s relatively little jargon. The weaknesses are that over-simplification is commoner than thoughtful and tentative nuance, and that too many facts and quotations are left unreferenced and therefore uncheckable. The book is reviewed for the Insted consultancy at

Although aimed essentially at the centre left of the political spectrum, where it has been well received by, for example, Jon Cruddas in the New Statesman, and where it chimes well with Labour’s One Nation rhetoric, the book is likely to be read also, and with an even warmer welcome, on the centre right.

The book’s valuable features include its insistence that issues of race and immigration should be rationally not emotively discussed, and that discussions should centrally include narratives, understandings and dreams about national identity and national history, and concepts of imagined community and emotional citizenship. Within this context Goodhart refers from time to time to Danny Boyle’s pageant at the opening of the 2012 Olympic Games as an iconic and vivid illustration of what the concept of One Nation can mean in practice. ‘When a country is changing very fast,’ he says, ‘it needs stories to reassure and guide it’, stories which are ‘about connecting majority to minority and old to new’.

The book’s unfortunate and disappointing features include its caricatures of multiculturalism, and of thinkers such as Bhikhu Parekh and Tariq Modood who have devoted their careers to thinking in depth about how multicultural societies such as Britain have developed; the weakness of its references to the importance of law and legislation; its embracing, in effect, of a Daily Express view of British Islam and British Muslims; its uncritical endorsement of the view that ‘humans are group-based primates who favour their own and extend trust to outsiders with caution’; its insufficient attention to the global and international context and to relevant issues of gender and social class; and its disinclination to consider the continuing influence of racisms in their various forms (behavioural/attitudinal; colour/cultural; personal/institutional; crude/subtle; street/dinner-table).

Goodhart describes himself at one point as a member of ‘the political tribe of north London liberals’. His dream is indeed that of such a person. For others, though, in view of the shallow generalisations and stereotypes on which it is built, it has the elements of a nightmare.

What If…? – an essay in subjunctive history

‘Thinking about what might have happened,’ says a character in The History Boys by Alan Bennett, ‘alerts you to the consequences of what did.’ Another character replies: ‘It’s subjunctive history … The subjunctive is the mood you use when something might or might not have happened, when it’s imagined.’

‘We told Rampton,’ reflected and rejoiced people of African-Caribbean heritage in Britain in 1981, ‘and Rampton told the world.’ Anthony Rampton’s report, West Indian Children in our Schools, had been warmly welcomed by the prime minister, James Callaghan, and by the secretary of state for education, Shirley Williams. Rampton’s messages were uncomfortable for Mr Callaghan, who had not said anything remotely similar in his celebrated Ruskin speech in 1976. But his positive response to the Rampton report, supported and reinforced by Mrs Williams, laid the foundations for one of the most exciting and sustained revolutions in education and society that these islands have ever seen.

There’s more of this ‘subjunctive history’ at

Schools, statues and Mary Seacole

Was L.P Hartley right in those famous words he wrote about history – ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’? Or was William Faulkner right – ‘the past isn’t dead and gone, it isn’t even past’? These and other questions arise in the current controversy about whether Mary Seacole should feature in England’s national curriculum, and whether she should be commemorated in statues and plaques. ‘The issue is about much more,’ Gus John has written, ‘than whether or not all children get to learn about Mary Seacole and her historical feat of travelling in the 19th century from Jamaica to the Crimea … It is about how the nation’s children, whites in particular, are structurally and systematically denied the opportunity to understand the past.’

Debates need to take place not only about the nature of history and about Britain’s story but also about who should be involved, and how, in considerations of the curriculum in schools –
Stories, schools and statues – the Tory view of history

Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony, it was reported a few days ago, was the most popular show on iPlayer in 2012 – there were about 3.3 million requests. For a montage of media comments about the ceremony, see ‘They made us nicer people’ at Mary Seacole makes us nicer people, too.

Professor Banks comes to London

On Monday 11 March the Institute of Education at the University of London is fortunate to be visited by the distinguished American scholar James A. Banks. He will be launching the international SAGE Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education which he has edited, accompanied and supported by some of the UK contributors to it, and will give a lecture entitled Diversity and Citizenship Education in Global Times. The launch starts at 3 pm and the lecture at 5.30. Tea will be served after the launch, and drinks and canapés after the lecture. Attendance is free of charge, but prior registration is necessary. Further information can be obtained from the office of Professor Hugh Starkey ( in relation to the launch and from Rachel Shaw ( in relation to the lecture.

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