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By Invitation | The 75th anniversary of India’s independence
What British pupils should know about Britain’s rule of India: a history teacher’s view
Tom Allen says that teachers need to offer more than a list of its positive and negative effects

Aug 15th 2022



“The things the British did in India are simply not taught in the syllabus and this is a problem,” said William Dalrymple at the Jaipur Literary Festival in September 2020. “When the British go out into the world,” the Delhi-based historian continued, “they don’t know what Indians know about the Raj or what the Irish know about the potato famine, they don’t know what the Australians know about the mass extinction of the Indigenous Tasmanians, so we need to teach this in our schools.”

For history teachers like me, the first reaction to pronouncements like Mr Dalrymple’s is often one of irritation, as it reveals how little wider society understands about how “the curriculum” in Britain actually functions. A national history curriculum exists, but aside from the Holocaust, which must be taught, it consists of a very broad set of guidelines. What is more, there is technically no requirement for academies—state-funded schools which are not accountable to local-authority control—to follow them (and they comprise four-fifths of all secondary schools in England). This means that in most schools it is up to the teachers themselves to decide whether or not they are going to educate their pupils about the Raj, the Irish famine or the Black war in Tasmania.

Mr Dalrymple does have a point, however. Many history departments have traditionally elected to romanticise the British Empire. But this is changing, and the Black Lives Matter protests across the world in June 2020 were a turning point. The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol at that time brought the continuing legacy of British colonialism into sharp focus. (Locals no longer wanted the statue of a slaver in their city.) Colonial history was already on the curriculum at my school, but my colleagues and I realised that we needed to reconsider not just what we were teaching, but how we were teaching it. When millions of people died of famine in India under British rule, is it appropriate to ask our pupils to weigh this statistic up against the fact that the British built railways?

At the academy in Bath where I worked for eight years, I taught a series of lessons on the British Empire in India to pupils aged 12 to 13. After learning about the East India Company and critical people such as Robert Clive, Tipu Sultan and Rammohan Roy, we made a whistle-stop tour of more than three centuries of Indian history. Then pupils evaluated two historical interpretations of British rule: one highly critical, as argued by Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician; and one sympathetic, from Lawrence James, a British historian. Then they would explain which of the two they found more convincing.

The idea behind this sequence of lessons was that the pupils could make up their own minds about the impact of colonialism on India—to tot up a list of “positives” and “negatives” and use these to decide which view they favoured. One of the textbooks we made use of encourages exactly this approach: it suggests that pupils pick pieces of information off its pages to place into the “positives” column (“the British built railways”) or the “negatives” (“criticising the British could land you in prison for sedition”).

More recently, however, such analysis of British rule in India has come under fire. A growing number of academic voices, both in Britain and overseas, have pointed out that this “balance-sheet” approach to the empire is deeply flawed. In her 2020 book “Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire”, Priya Satia, an American historian, argues that we would never compile a list of “positives” and “negatives” about fascist regimes in Europe, out of respect to their victims. Professor Satia also points out that a “balance-sheet” suggests that the impact of colonialism in India is over, and that a final account can be settled, suggesting to pupils that the empire is firmly in the past.

Now instead of asking pupils to look for “positives” and “negatives”, we should ask some simple questions: what did the British do in India? Why did they do it? Who benefited? And how does it still affect communities today? This reframing will lead to richer discussions. Instead of glibly placing railways or factories into the “positives” column and moving on, pupils need to think about why the British constructed them. It is more enlightening to try to reconstruct the worldview of British policymakers, such as those who refused relief to starving Indians in the famine of 1899-1900, than it is to place their actions into a chart. Understanding colonialism gives pupils the ability to think about the most fundamental questions of all: how did we get here, and does it have to be like this? History teachers in Britain have a responsibility to allow pupils to explore the full extent of the country’s colonial legacy. At a time when Britain’s national identity and global role is being recast, future generations should attempt to understand the empire from the perspective of the people it was imposed upon. ■

Tom Allen is a history teacher. He now works at a school in Germany.




对于像我这样的历史教师来说,对像达尔林普尔先生这样的声明的第一反应往往是恼怒,因为它揭示了更广泛的社会对英国的 "课程 "的实际运作了解得有多少。全国历史课程是存在的,但除了必须教授的大屠杀外,它由一套非常广泛的准则组成。更重要的是,从技术上讲,没有要求国家资助的、不受地方政府控制的学校遵守这些课程(而这些学校占英格兰所有中学的五分之四)。这意味着,在大多数学校,由教师自己决定是否对学生进行关于拉吉王朝、爱尔兰大饥荒或塔斯马尼亚黑人战争的教育。

然而,达尔林普尔先生确实有一个观点。许多历史系在传统上选择将大英帝国浪漫化。但这种情况正在发生变化,2020年6月世界各地发生的 "黑人的生活 "抗议活动是一个转折点。当时布里斯托尔的爱德华-科尔斯顿雕像被推倒,使英国殖民主义的持续遗产成为焦点。(当地人不再希望奴隶主的雕像出现在他们的城市里。)殖民历史已经在我的学校的课程中,但我和我的同事们意识到,我们需要重新考虑的不仅仅是我们的教学内容,还有我们的教学方式。当英国统治下的印度有数百万人死于饥荒时,要求我们的学生将这一统计数字与英国人修建铁路这一事实进行权衡是否合适?

在我工作了8年的巴斯学院,我为12至13岁的学生讲授了一系列关于大英帝国在印度的课程。在了解了东印度公司和罗伯特-克莱夫、蒂普-苏丹和拉姆莫汉-罗伊等关键人物后,我们对三个多世纪的印度历史进行了一次呼啸式的参观。然后,学生们评估了对英国统治的两种历史解释:一种是印度政治家沙希-塔鲁尔(Shashi Tharoor)提出的高度批评,另一种是英国历史学家劳伦斯-詹姆斯(Lawrence James)提出的同情。然后他们将解释他们认为哪一个更有说服力。

这一系列课程背后的想法是,学生们可以就殖民主义对印度的影响做出自己的判断,列出一份 "积极 "和 "消极 "的清单,并利用这些清单来决定他们赞成哪种观点。我们使用的一本教科书正是鼓励这种方法:它建议学生从书页上挑选一些信息放到 "正面 "一栏("英国人修建了铁路")或 "负面 "一栏("批评英国人可能会让你以煽动罪入狱")中。

然而,最近,对英国在印度的统治的这种分析受到了抨击。在英国和海外,越来越多的学术界人士指出,这种对帝国的 "资产负债表 "方法存在很大的缺陷。在她2020年出版的《时间的怪物。美国历史学家普里亚-萨蒂亚(Priya Satia)认为,出于对欧洲法西斯政权受害者的尊重,我们永远不会编制一份关于其 "正面 "和 "负面 "的清单。萨蒂亚教授还指出,"资产负债表 "表明,殖民主义在印度的影响已经结束,可以算出最后一笔账,向学生暗示,帝国已经牢牢地成为过去。

现在,我们应该问一些简单的问题,而不是要求学生寻找 "正面 "和 "负面 "的东西:英国人在印度做了什么?他们为什么要这样做?谁受益了?它对今天的社区又有什么影响?这种重构将导致更丰富的讨论。与其轻率地将铁路或工厂归入 "积极因素 "一栏并继续前进,学生们需要思考英国人为什么要建造它们。试图重建英国政策制定者的世界观,例如那些在1899-1900年饥荒中拒绝救济饥饿的印度人的人,比把他们的行动放在图表中更有启发性。了解殖民主义使学生有能力思考最基本的问题:我们是如何来到这里的,它必须是这样的吗?英国的历史教师有责任让学生们全面探索国家的殖民主义遗产。在英国的国家身份和全球角色被重新塑造的时候,未来的几代人应该尝试从被强加的人民的角度来理解帝国。■

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