How many times have we heard politicians espousing the virtues of teaching and learning history? The importance of the subject is never in doubt, and whilst not quite up there with science and maths, it certainly is on the next rung of the currivulum ladder.
For those on the right, however, the subject`s significance lies in how the retelling of events from a nationalistic perspective can lead to an increase in loyalty to the state and crown.The fact that it can also reveal the evils and excesses of imperialism, and the pointlessness of wars, whilst also offering hundreds of opportunities for evaluation and analysis of sources, rarely gets a look in.
What politicians of all sides agree on is that history has so many lessons to teach; everyone, but especially those with power, can look back in time, and learn from examples from the past. As is the case with so many politicians, however, their rhetoric does not match their actions. There are so many examples to prove this, but a few will suffice here.
Take nationalism for instance; it has led to two world wars and hundreds more smaller ones, but English politicians like Michael Gove, still insist on more emphasis on British history in our schools, with more events which apparently glorify the bravery of the Brits, and denegrate all foreigners, becoming compulsory items on the curriculum. Even the role of our allies in wars is never given sufficient attention. Is such teaching likely to lead to increased tolerance, and a more peaceful future?
Then there`s economic history: 20th century history has shown how governments which have borrowed and spent in times of economic hardship have ridden out the storm, and seen their countries` economies recover from recession. That doesn`t stop the Tories, and indeed some from other parties ostensibly to the left, from insisting that austerity is the answer to economic ills. What examples do they have for this?
So much for history having so much to teach us!
What about the well-documented subject of aerial bombing? If history teaches us anything it is that bombing kills and maims innocents, and the result is increased resentment and hatred, and desire for retribution and revenge, rather than peace. World War II, Vietnam, Syria? Yet very few leaders have the courage to suggest alternative methods to deal with aggression, when history tells us again and again that lasting peace can be achieved more easily and less painfully by negotiation and diplomacy,
Social history shows us how sensible treatment of workers leads to more equal and fair societies. Fear of creating a hugely unequal populace, and a resentful working class, led the western powers to insist on workers being represented on the boards of West Germany`s businesses, and having a say in all decisions, including pay. This co-determination led to few industrial relations problems, and massive economic growth. So what does teh present government do? Insist on policies which curb workers` rights, and which inflame anger by imposing contracts and changing working conditions!
Does history teach our modern leaders anything?