African history: the need for its teaching in UK schools

March 28, 2011 10:07 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

In a surprising move for a Labour leader, David Cameron’s predecessor publicly leant his support to a 2007 campaign calling for the creation of a museum dedicated solely to British history. The aim was to have a series of websites, archives and exhibitions designed to, in Gordon Brown’s words, “celebrate the great British values on which our culture, politics and society have been shaped.” The proposal was eventually rejected; yet it was another example of the woefully introverted nature of the government’s attitude (sadly unlikely to change under the Conservatives) to the promotion of history as a discipline to the British public.

Although window-dressed to seem like a piece of harmless patriotism, anyone who studied history formally at a UK school can attest there is no shortage of avenues allowing people to study British history. On the contrary, for those like myself (who have little interest in it) there is no escape; from a young age the curriculum is dominated by the Tudors and the two world wars, with occasional provision made for African-American history or US ventures in the Far East (rarely told from the perspective of the latter). Few who studied history for GCSE or A-Level in the last 10 years are likely to recall a curriculum balanced with the history of Asian or African countries. Given that Britain has touched so many of them directly or indirectly, such a situation needs to be changed, not further entrenched.

For one thing, presenting human existence from such a narrow perspective creates an attitude that is small-minded and parochial, arguably helping to account for the shocking ignorance displayed by many British people regarding countries outside Europe or the US, particularly in Africa. British history is venerated constantly in public celebrations, from Remembrance Day to Victory in Europe Day, but a surprising number of people still think Africa is a country. Far from British history being neglected, the glut of commemorative days aimed at celebrating UK military successes and battles abroad arguably creates an ‘us-against-them’ mentality, defined by arrogance and an inflated superiority complex that sees foreigners as the primitive and unsophisticated ‘Other’ – with the implication that England and the West have always been at the forefront of civilisation.

The case for making African history a part of the school curriculum is particularly potent because of the public’s convoluted attitude to the continent. It is seen through a complex lens that is rarely helped by the media, defined largely through fear (images of Africa rarely go beyond endless warfare and violence), pity (from public campaigns such as Make Poverty History and Live 8), or judgement (often from those pining for the Empire, claiming Africa would be less of a so-called basket case if Britain had never given up her territories).

There is also another, deeper dimension to the public’s view of Africa, one paradoxically filled with awe. Africa is seen as somewhere ancient, biblical and mystical, a place defined by impenetrable jungles and canyons where explorers can find long-hidden treasures. Various TV shows with un-nuanced titles, such as the BBC’s recent Lost Kingdoms of Africa and the 2008 Channel 4 show Lost Arc of the Covenant illustrate this well, helping to feed an ignorant and stereotyped view of Africa that has little correlation to many of its countries’ real and interesting histories.

Ignorance is perhaps the most pervasive aspect of the wider British public’s view of Africa, with many seeing it simply as ‘the hopeless continent’ and deriding its supposed inability to develop. This betrays a collective amnesia over the fact that many African countries were constructs, lines drawn on a map by European colonisers that were forced to start functioning as autonomous nation-states – for some as little as 50 years ago. Given the number that inherited systems of rule from Europeans where compliance was brought about at gunpoint, it is hardly surprising that many (excluding the recent examples in North Africa) have not rushed to embrace democracy. British people in particular are quick to forget the long centuries it took for many of Europe’s political and legal systems to develop, and that there is nothing innate within Africans making them prone to warfare and despotism. But as African history is rarely taught in school, anyone who relies purely on the media for knowledge of Africa remains woefully uninformed, with the colonial image of ‘the Dark Continent’ remaining undiminished.

I’m fully aware I’ve talked about Africa in a collective way, but this is only for the sake of critiquing a mindset which sees it as a homogenous whole beyond the purely geographic. Africa is the most diverse continent on the planet in terms of language, religion, skin colour and culture; yet the current education system creates a parochial and un-enquiring mindset where people leave unequipped to question the old images of oriental despotism. Teaching non-European, particularly African history, would go some way to rectifying this.


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This post was written by Madeleine Louise Fry

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