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Jo Williams - cover 1920x576

Attitude to history has moved from pride to shame

Think of the great Enlightenment philosophers —  Hume, Hegel or Kant — and what comes to mind? Religious tolerance, individual liberty, reason, rationality? For a generation of students, it’s likely to be racism.

A growing number of universities are slapping trigger warnings on once great thinkers now deemed ‘problematic’ by today’s academics. Edinburgh University went further and renamed David Hume Tower entirely. At a stroke, this tribute to one the world’s most significant philosophers and a heavyweight of Scottish intellectual history was erased. Edinburgh is now paying for its cultural vandalism. It has reportedly lost £2million in donations since the renaming.

Sadly, it’s not just British universities that view the past with contempt. In Australia, statues of historical figures have been removed or vandalised and there are perennial calls to change the date of — and thus redefine — Australia Day.

Why are we so quick to denigrate our national identity and its intellectual and cultural legacy? We seem intent on raising a generation of young people entirely alienated from the traditions and values of the past.

This sense of alienation has been a long time in the making. Over the course of at least a century, elite attitudes towards the nation have shifted from pride to ambiguity and finally to shame. Over several decades, this change has been baked into our education system.

Subjects such as art, music, literature and most notably history, transmit national culture and a national story. How we choose to tell this story reflects not objective truths but the attitude towards the nation that is dominant among members of the educational establishment and the cultural elite more broadly.

The history curriculum has long been subject to public debate. Classes rarely appear to be overtly political and frequently emphasise skills alongside knowledge. But skills are considered necessary in order for pupils to make sense of a ‘messy’ past that comes with multiple, equally valid, interpretations. And skills are easily blurred with attitudes. Getting children to demonstrate empathy for people in the past is often a goal although some groups are deemed more worthy of historical empathy than others. What’s more, employing emotions paves the way for apportioning historical blame.

The messages adults convey about the past — delivered through the general culture and more formally through schooling — teach children about the society they have been born into. For this reason, as the American educator E.D. Hirsch explains, ”Schooling in a democracy is not just schooling. It’s also citizen making.” Yet traditional school subjects are rarely able to inspire a positive concept of what it means to be a citizen of a nation.

For this reason, formal citizenship classes have come to take on a far more significant role within the school curriculum. But since the mid-1990s, it is not national citizenship but global citizenship that Australian educators have sought to advance. Both the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (2008) and ACARA 2012 promoted global citizenship as an aim of schooling.

Global citizenship encourages children to see themselves as part of an interconnected world community facing problems such as climate change, or the spread of disinformation via social media, that supersede national borders. The mantra of advocates is that pupils should think globally but act locally.

Of course children should be taught about different countries and cultures; this is why geography is an important subject. But global citizenship is both more abstract and more political than lessons spent poring over an atlas.

Despite often being promoted as a means of tackling a democratic deficit, global citizenship lessons undermine the nation state — the foundational democratic unit — by making it seem less significant than transnational institutions on one hand, or local action on the other. Global citizenship is a hollow concept in comparison to the specific democratic rights associated with national citizenship.

The focus on activity within local communities — be it litter pickup or making posters to encourage recycling — makes citizenship classes distinct from other school subjects. Although no doubt welcomed as a break from sitting behind a desk, the emphasis on activity is anti-intellectual and serves to deny children access to the powerful knowledge that could transform their lives.

Active local citizenship has been described as a ‘prophylactic measure’ by educationalists in Australia and as ‘an antidote’ in the UK. This medicalised language suggests that classes can inoculate children against the dangers of nationalism and populism.

But the problem now confronting us is that successive generations have been socialised into feeling alienated from their nation and its past. This creates the conditions for a disturbing turn to nihilism that we already see demonstrated in politically-inspired acts of cultural and intellectual destruction.

Next time we are tempted to deride our national history or take down yesteryear’s intellectual giants, we would do well to pause first.

Joanna Williams is the founder and director of CIEO, an independent UK think tank, and author of the Center for Independent Studies paper, Teaching National Shame.