Juliet Babinsky for varsity

During a Year Six history lesson, my class was instructed to colour in a map of all the countries in Queen Victoria’s British Empire. There was no mention of how this empire had been built. I had proudly gleaned the coveted scarlet crayon from the stationary pot. It is with irony that I now look back on the oblivious little Sri-Lankan girl happily colouring the map blood red.

‘Colonialism’ and ‘Empire’ are words which rarely cropped up throughout my education, and when they finally did, not without being scrubbed clean of allusions to violence or white supremacy. Even a GCSE history unit titled ‘The Transformation of British Society 1815-1851’ managed to evade the role played by goods and labour from the expanding empire in transforming British society. The £20 million compensation given to slave owners was omitted; in fact, there was only one sentence on the abolition of slavery. The looting, cultural suppression and famines instigated by the East India Company went entirely unremarked. Instead, we spent three lessons on the construction of Crystal Palace. (It involved lots of glass and metal. People were impressed.) The building showcased valuable objects from around the world - though the textbook didn’t clarify quite how these precious artefacts had made their way to an exhibition in England.

“[it] was a stark realisation that there are tangible impacts of propagating airbrushed heroes”

It would be difficult to discuss partial historical representation without mentioning the man staring up from our Five-Pound notes. Churchill was a good strategist. He orchestrated key military victories. He was also a staunch imperialist and racist, whose policies led to famine in Bangladesh. The latter part of this biography never made it into my Year Nine history lesson. Voice cracking, the cover teacher spoke of ‘Our great, great leader,’ eventually bursting into tears when she saw one girl munching a crisp rather than staring rapt at the whiteboard. As disastrous as that lesson was, it was an oddly educational experience. A grown woman sobbing at a few thirteen-year olds’ indifference to a picture of Churchill was a stark realisation that there are tangible impacts of propagating airbrushed heroes. Scanning the class, she seemed dismayed that even those of us taking detailed notes did not display her palpable admiration.

Amongst those willing to accept the continuing cost of British colonialism, I’ve encountered arguments that children should not be subjected to its disturbing and painful history. Well, algebraic graphs were painful too, but no one spared me from that agony. As it is, the curriculum isn’t devoid of uncomfortable material. When taking the history GCSE which neglected to discuss empire, I studied a Crime and Punishment module, which detailed corporal punishment, public executions and serial killers. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is a popular A-level text which condenses rape, incest, murder and bestiality into a feminist scrutiny of fairy tales. I found its explicit ideas provoked critical, unapologetically feminist thinking. A place for unpleasant and graphic content has already been made in the education system. I think, then, the silence in classrooms on the origins and development of systemic racism is rather telling.

Finally, at A-level, I was given a brief glimpse into discussing colonisation studying The Tempest. I’m thankful that my sixth-form English department dedicated time to examining postcolonial interpretations, especially when the exam board expected candidates to provide a broad sweep of many readings within one fifteen-mark question. A criteria which proved problematic.

“the silence in classrooms on the origins and development of systemic racism is rather telling”

An examiner’s report displayed frustration that a fascination with postcolonialism dominated responses. I was probably the type of student chastised in that report. My essays focused on Prospero’s relationship to the island and its inhabitants, clumsy tirades with counterpoints crammed into a couple of lines, to meet assessment objectives. However, I’d like to attempt a defence here: there had never been an opportunity in school for me to explore any of these ideas at length or in any depth. In my own time, I’d taken an online course on the British Empire, found articles on colonialism and struggled through ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’. When given the chance to scrutinise Shakespeare - a cornerstone of the Western canon - in relation to a topic which had always been diluted and sidelined, I couldn’t contain myself to a few sentences.

Only offering a limited and optional knowledge of the vast implications of colonialism is a sort of suppression which is cleverer than blatant omission. It claims to educate but leaves students individually responsible for gaining sufficient and meaningful understanding.

“[it] was an unwitting confession that partial knowledge upholds systemic racism”

My English degree is not innocent of this. Certainly, students can choose exam questions on empire, and an optional paper on post-colonial literature. The postcolonial section was moved from the basement of the English Faculty Library - though, admittedly, a victory which should not have been necessary. But whilst it is compulsory to translate and analyse three separate dialects of Middle English, it is not compulsory to examine literature focused on British colonialism in the very period where the empire began. At freshers’ week, the faculty presentation introduced the valuable work undertaken by the ‘Decolonise English’ campaign. The talk mentioned a student calling for a broader curriculum being accused by the press of wanting to burn the English classics. This fearful and immediate association of honesty with threat to ‘English tradition’ (read: whiteness) was an unwitting confession that partial knowledge upholds systemic racism. Whilst I was unsurprised, I was disappointed. Education is an ongoing process, and one university students pay thousands for. So the idea that there is a restricted list for the right things to learn that must never be evaluated or added to defeats the point of research and educational institutions.


Mountain View

Institutional racism can be elusive, but it cannot be ignored

In the wake of protestors tearing down Colston’s statue, discussions of ‘erasing history’ have swarmed the news. Surprising myself, I must agree with many of the white conservatives who raise this point of censoring history. I’ve found that in classrooms, history has been erased. It is a process of erasure. By Michael Gove, designer of the national curriculum, by exam boards, by every lesson that reduced empire to markings on a map.

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