|THE WORST GRADE I ever received at university was for a paper on America’s wartime President Woodrow Wilson. The teaching of the course, and the framing of the question, emphasised Wilson the liberal superhero; my focus on imperialism and Wilson’s (extraordinary even by the standards of his time) racism was a turd in the punchbowl. It wasn’t big and it wasn’t clever, warned my tutor.|
Times were different back then, and my intention wasn’t to signal my virtue (this was more than a decade ago: there was zero clout attached to anti-racist stances). And doubtless I was being a contrarian smart arse. But I had written something provocative to highlight the one-sided of teaching in elite institutions. Even at “progressive” Glasgow University, American History functioned to rationalise American Empire.
This anecdote partly serves to illustrate a cultural shift. Nowadays, ironically, a student might be marked down for presenting Wilson as a liberal Übermensch without mentioning how he re-segregated federal government and how he was quoted three times in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a homage to the KKK. Times change. Liberal mores have shifted. One conformity supplants another. Like it or not, nobody gets a free pass on the Klan anymore.
But I also mention this because of emerging debates about education and Scottish independence. Excerpts from a new paper, titled “How ‘progressive’ anti-imperialism threatens the United Kingdom”, and written by two respected Professors, have appeared in the Herald. Sadly, the full paper remains unpublished (I’m unironically keen to read it). But the central claim is that Scotland’s youth are being corrupted by the anti-imperialism they’re learning, and it’s threatening the Union.
The authors argue that, for Scottish nationalists, “it is politically useful to recount the history of the British Empire as a litany of ugly racial prejudice, rapacious economic exploitation, and violent atrocity”, including slavery. These nationalists “equate Britain with empire, and empire with evil, seeing Scotland’s possible independence as part of the progressive arc of history”. But they fail to realise that the British Empire was “morally complicated and ambiguous”.
Surely, if there’s a “culprit” here, it’s not Scottish nationalism. The new negativity about the British Empire instead emerges from shifts in American liberalism, which, post-Trump, is facing up to the determining role of slavery, segregation and imperialism in US history. This has a knock-on effect in Britain, which is effectively an American cultural satellite, and that extends far beyond Scotland. Today, for instance, there’s news that Oxford lecturers are boycotting Oriel College over the decision to preserve a statue of Cecil Rhodes.
The movement for Scottish independence might benefit indirectly from these new fashions. But if it’s benefitting from a new honesty about the discomfiting facts of our history, that says more about unionism than nationalism. Regardless of the constitutional future, every British citizen should know about the Irish Famine, the Bengal Famine, the “Late Victorian Holocausts” in India and China, the Amritsar Massacre, the Mau Mau uprising and all the rest. Otherwise, we are teaching amnesia as state propaganda.
In some cases, over-eager educators might abuse the facts. And the “woke” shift in liberalism sometimes makes it harder to debate finer points of accuracy. That’s a risk, and one the left should take seriously if it wants to preserve a moral high-ground.
Equally, constitutional history isn’t just about goodies and baddies, and for every Cecil Rhodes there’s Tony Benn or the Chartists. Unionists could sell a progressive story of Britain as a nation marked by conflicting interests and values; instead, some prefer to meet “separatism” with a moralising gloss on atrocities.
One-sidedness and censorship isn’t good education. Students should hear about the liberal values of Anglo-America and lecturers shouldn’t be “cancelled” for holding “wrong” or conservative views. Some humanities students are learning a one-sided “activist curriculum” that leaves them intellectually enfeebled when faced with an intelligent right-winger (unable to argue, they resort to babbling buzzwords: patriarchy, whiteness, etc). That’s a major source of weakness on the left. You can’t critique the ruling class without listening first.
But if students pass through an American history course believing Woodrow Wilson was a saint, or a British history course believing the same of Winston Churchill, education has become indoctrination.
Of course, there is one worthwhile debate about “Scottish nationalist propaganda” and the British Empire. In the interests of accuracy, we’ve got to insist that Scotland was not some innocent victim of imperialism but a senior partner in Britain’s worst crimes. This is where nuance is needed and where good educators earn their corn. It’s quite possible to teach history in its complexity and ambivalence without becoming a propagandist for state power.
If students pass through an American history course believing Woodrow Wilson was a saint, or a British history course believing the same of Winston Churchill, education has become indoctrination.