Decolonising the History Curriculum: Considering National Narratives in History Textbooks from a Global Perspective

Written by Tina van der Vlies

Tina van der Vlies is an assistant professor of history at Erasmus University Rotterdam. In 2019, she successfully defended her PhD dissertation ‘Echoing Events. The Perpetuation of National Narratives in English and Dutch History Textbooks, 1920-2010’. Since her research provided a better understanding of the potential mobilizing power of national narratives in societies, it was awarded with several prizes.

 

Decolonising the history curriculum is a topical issue.[1] Decolonising in this context means a call for what Meera Sabaratnam describes as a "better historical awareness of the contexts in which scholarly knowledge has been produced".[2] Especially since the nineteenth century, knowledge about the English and Dutch nation has been built on colonial and racial structures. Sabaratnam asks us to look at our shared assumptions about how the world is.

One way to achieve this aim is to challenge traditional frames in which history is taught and understood. The most well-known frame in which history has been presented in history textbooks is the national one. This is understandable since history is a compulsory subject in many national curricula. National regulations and public discourses about school history are often connected to debates about citizenship and values, in attempts to attribute specific characteristics to the nation and its inhabitants. However, stories from different countries that emphasize national unique characteristics often share interesting similarities. For instance, various politicians stress ‘national features’ in their speeches, while perpetuating nostalgic and heroic images of the nation as well as implicit colonial world views. Hence, this article considers national narratives in history textbooks from a global perspective in order to shed light on some of these resemblances. Transnational narrative structures are easily overlooked when national contexts and their accompanying stories dominate the history curriculum.

National narratives can share the same underlying interpretation pattern. Memory scholar James Wertsch makes a distinction between specific narratives and schematic narrative templates. Specific narratives are uniquely situated in space and time and deal with specific events, persons and periods. These different stories about the past can – although they vary a lot in their details – look like replicas as they share the same underlying narrative structure. Wertsch describes this shared storyline as a schematic narrative template, as a basic building block of collective memory that connects various specific histories.[3] However, Wertsch warns that these schematic narrative templates are not universal archetypes; he explains that certain narrative templates are part of a specific cultural tradition. For example, the “triumph over alien forces” template dominates Russian collective memory and although this template is available to members of other cultural traditions as well, it is not as prevailing as in Russia. For example, it can also be found in the American tradition but will be outweighed by the dominant American “quest for freedom” template.[4]

During my PhD research, I discovered how national narratives in English and Dutch history textbooks overlapped and interfused, and how certain national frames of references were perpetuated over time. Textbook authors narrated different histories as ‘echoing events’ by interpreting them in the same way and by using the same combinations of historical analogies. They gave meaning to history with these recurring connections.[5] Next to the fact that this mechanism was visible in history textbooks from both countries, my research revealed some transnational narrative structures as well.

A first example is interpreting history as a fight between freedom and tyranny. This interpretation is visible in Dutch history textbooks, but also in English and American history textbooks. This interpretation can dominate sixteenth-century war narratives but also stories about the two world wars. Dichotomies often have a great effect on national narratives: the rhetoric is simple, recognizable, and appealing. Sometimes the dichotomy between freedom and tyranny is related to the contrasts between ‘light’ and ‘dark’, or ‘good’ and ‘evil’. However, in both countries the history textbooks hardly questioned the meaning of freedom and tyranny during the colonial period.

Another similarity is the David-Goliath narrative structure, referring to the Biblical story of the shepherd boy David who courageously fought against the giant warrior Goliath who was twice his size. Although the shepherd boy was armed with nothing more than a few stones and a sling, he defeated the heavily armoured and weaponed giant. It is a classical story about how the underdog can champion over a major power. This structure is present in several national narratives as well. For example, Dutch national narratives are often presented in line with the phrase ‘small but brave’. The Netherlands is a small country and its founding narrative is located in the sixteenth century: the low countries revolted against the mighty Philip II and this resulted in the independence of the Dutch Republic. It is interesting that the same narrative structure is present in the southern low countries, nowadays Belgium. In 1999, ‘the three Belgians’ released a modern musical version of the Belgium national anthem and the phrase ‘small but brave’ plays a key role in this song.[6] More recently, in 2014, the Belgian author Mark De Geest published his book Brave Little Belgium.

In England the same narrative structure is visible, although the exact phrase differs from Belgian and Dutch national narratives. English history textbooks emphasize how England had repeatedly ‘stood alone’ against a superpower, for example against Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars or against Hitler during World War II. The latter interpretation was reinforced by the British prime minister Winston Churchill’s wartime speech on 20 August 1940 in which he stressed: ‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few’. This myth of ‘standing alone’ has dominated in various English history textbook series. Although the myth is debunked and various new textbook series have been published without the myth, it still appeals to people and continues to play an important role in English collective memory. That is why the well-known expression also surfaced several times in the Brexit debate, which is based on nostalgic images of Britain as a colonial empire: "Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves”.

A third similarity between history textbooks from various countries is the “quest”, such as the quest for freedom, tolerance or progress. The idea of a quest is a well-known storyline of several novels and films, such as Lord of the Rings and Saving Private Ryan. A hero needs to overcome several problems during the journey to reach the ultimate goal in the end. It is certainly not my goal to downplay history textbooks – it is extremely hard to compose a textbook that suits a certain age-population and their interests. Next to contents, textbooks need to be pedagogically in line with the audience and – also important – the text and the assignments need to be read and accomplished in a limited time frame. Moreover, politics and society are demanding as well. What I would like to stress in this paragraph is that the story-form of national narratives can intertwine with ideas about history itself. (National) history can be defined as a process towards freedom, tolerance, or progress. This is also visible in academic historiography: in 1931, Herbert Butterfield published his well-known book The Whig Interpretation of History, in which he criticized historians’ retrospective creation of – especially national – progress.

This article discussed the decolonisation of the history curriculum by showing that ‘unique’ national histories in textbooks from former colonial empires often share remarkable similarities: the stories often include implicit colonial references and images, and contain the same underlying storyline or interpretative structure. It is important that pupils understand how national histories are framed by the selection of specific persons, topics, periods, and sources – while ignoring others – and by the underlying interpretative structure. Although this is a difficult skill, it is necessary to obtain insight in national narratives’ frames in order to genuinely decolonise the history curriculum.

 

References:

[1] I would like to thank the founder and special advisor of EuroClio Joke van der Leeuw-Roord for her valuable comments.

[2] https://www.historyextra.com/period/modern/decolonise-history-curriculum-education-how-meghan-markle-black-study/. May 10, 2021.

[3] James Wertsch, Voices of Collective Remembering, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002; James Wertsch, ‘Specific Narratives and Schematic Narrative Templates,’ in P. Seixas (ed), Theorizing Historical Consciousness, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004, 49-63.

[4] James Wertsch, ‘The Narrative Organization of Collective Memory,’ Ethos, 36 (2008), 120–135, 124.

[5] Tina van der Vlies, ‘Multidirectional war narratives in history textbooks,’ Paedagogica Historica 52, no. 3 (2016), 300-314; Tina van der Vlies, 'Echoing national narratives in English history textbooks,' in M. Carretero. S. Berger & M. Grever (eds.), Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, 243-258.

[6] De III Belgen, Zwart geel rouge (1999): ‘O dierbaar België, klein maar dapper, van stad tot vlakke land’.

A Complex Story of an English Female Benefactor

Introduction

In the early years of EuroClio we organized two conferences in Glasgow together with Strathclyde University about competence based learning in history. The onsite learning programme brought the participants to New Lanark, the big factory complex owned by Robert Owen.  It was at that time not long ago that I left teaching myself, and I had still vivid memories about teaching about Owen and his social experimentations. I was thrilled to finally visit the spot where it all happened and had a real historical sensation (Huizinga) when I was allowed to hold in my hand the first edition of Owen’s biography with his signature. The beautiful natural location and the good preservation of New Lanark were constantly in my mind while reading David Sekers’ A Lady of Cotton: Hannah Greg, Mistress of Quarry Bank Mill. His description of the location of the Quarry Bank factory in the neighborhood of Manchester made me aware that it must have been a very similar situation to that of Owen’s New Lanark.

A Lady of Cotton: Hannah Greg, Mistress of Quarry Bank Mill is an interesting publication, which intertwines gender, religious and moral history all closely related to the vast industrial development of England, and particularly the expansion of Liverpool and Manchester. It tells the story of Hannah Greg, a well-educated and intelligent young woman of Dissenter background. She married Samuel Greg one of the first cotton industrialists. She bore him thirteen children, who almost all lived long lives.

The book gives insight in the opportunities Hannah had in the world of Dissenters to have a good education.  Among these Protestant Christians, who were separated from the Church of England, was a substantial group of the new factory owners in the Midlands. They build new churches and created intellectual societies, which were sometimes also open for women. Hannah’s parents gave her the opportunity to become well educated, however when she married she entered into a man's world. Her husband expected her to be a good and dutiful wife. Initially she had difficulties with this position but eventually she accepted her fate and used her knowledge and skills to make sure her many children received modern and high quality education. She and her husband had a pleasing relation, although it was hard for Hannah to accept that her husband owned a  property in the West Indies based on slavery.

As wife of a factory owner of growing importance she turned her attention to the well-being of the young people (from 6 years old!) who worked in her husband’s cotton mill. She worked to improve the education, health as well as the welfare of the pauper apprentices. She used her knowledge and experience to publish a great number of books and could therefore widely influence her community and many who came into contact with her.

Why should you not read this book?

David Sekers becomes regularly a bit repetitive. It might be that this is the result of the limited amount of resources he could use, but it is slightly irritating to read a few times the same information. A better editor would have saved him for such repetitions.

Why should you read this book?

A Lady of Cotton: Hannah Greg, Mistress of Quarry Bank Mill demonstrates flawlessly the discrepancy between high minded philosophy and religious conviction and the reality of everyday reality. The dissenters had lofty ideas about education and equality but if it came to the mills’ workforce they did not (fully) apply to the pauper apprentices. These very young children were necessary for the production, and there was little questioning if such young people should be working instead of going to school. They received education at Quarry Bank, which was indeed exceptional for that time, but it was to become good and well behaved workers. These young workers should not challenge or change their societal position. Hannah’s silence about her slave owning husband also shows how she lived with a double standard and how complex it was to match ideology and practice. The current debate on the role of the Bristol philanthropist and slave trader Edward Colston is another example of such double standard attitude.

How can history, citizenship and heritage education benefit?

A Lady of Cotton: Hannah Greg, Mistress of Quarry Bank Mill allows educators to discuss political and religious tolerance, especially in times of war. The book gives insights into the political situation of the Dissenters around 1800. They were already before the Napoleonic Wars observed with suspicion by the leading political powers. However, when they openly showed understanding for the ideals of the French Revolution, the position of Dissenters became really difficult.

The book sheds light on the opportunities and limitations around the turn of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century for intelligent women like Hannah Greg. It shows that women had more opportunities in that time to become educated than normally is assumed, but as soon as they married their freedom was restricted.

David Sekers’ preface to the book contains a short but helpful introduction into the source problem he encountered, when he decided to write about Hannah Greg. He was lucky to be able to use the Greg family archive, but was well aware how one sided that might be. His text helps students to think about the relation of building a narrative, based on truthful facts and still not being able to write a true story. In a time where we are caught in a big debate about facts and opinions, it is good to remind us all that history in the end always will be able to partially disclose the full picture.