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History battles – How we remember the past

Updated Wednesday, 19th June 2013
How we teach history could be changing. Back to the bad old days, or could the 'voices from below' make themselves heard?

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Old hardback books Hitting the books - but back to the old ways? History has never been more popular.

There is more of it on TV than ever before, with professional historians and popular commentators delivering masses of images, facts and anecdotes into our living rooms on a daily basis.

Only food and soaps seem to be given more airtime. Family history, heritage studies, and the internet, with its sheer capacity for exchanging historical knowledge, have pushed out the boundaries still further.

The potential to reach new audiences and offer space to forgotten voices appears unlimited.

Yet, how we view the past, the methods we adopt in investigating it, and the priorities we give for teaching it, are, once again, all under scrutiny.

Michael Gove, the Education Minister, has drafted a revamped history curriculum, heavy on data and key dates which will offer, in a strict chronology, the ‘story of Britain’.

Along the way Gove has upset leading historians, attracted much criticism from history teachers and raised the prospect of returning to a top-down and selective view of the past.

This conventional way of teaching history, grounded in battles and lists, has been the subject of past critique because of its focus on elites and confining historical knowledge and investigation to professional historians; excluding, therefore, the many fragmented, local and dissident voices.

We can add to that the hegemony of neoliberalism over recent decades, which has provided particular understandings of the 1970s and 1980s that were evident in the wake of Mrs Thatcher’s death. In that selective look at the past, in a narrative largely shared by New Labour and the Conservatives, ‘class’, in its sense of collective, shared experience, was the main historical casualty.

In all the accounts of the ideas which underpinned Thatcher's philosophy in government, probably the most illuminating was written shortly after she left office over twenty years ago.

In his essay ‘Mrs Thatcher and Victorian Values’, Raphael Samuel used the opportunity to revisit Victorian attitudes to poverty, welfare, church and chapel, modernisation and tradition as well as interrogating her own claims to Victorian sensibilities.

From R.Samuel, Island Stories: Unravelling Britain. Theatres of Memory Volume II. Verso 1999:

‘Mrs Thatcher used ‘Victorian Values’ as a way of conjuring up lost innocence. Against a background of inner-city disturbances, such as those which swept the streets of Toxteth and Brixton in 1981, she pictured an older Britain where parents were strict, children good-mannered, hooliganism (she erroneously believed) unknown. At a time when both the struggling and the prosperous were mortgaged up to the hilt, she recalled the virtues of penny saving. In a contracting economy where, under the shadow of microchip technology, every occupation was under actual or potential threat, she looked back to a time when labour was a means of self-fulfilment, when occupations were regarded as callings, and when jobs – or businesses – were for life. In the face of multi-culturalism, she resurrected the mythology of a unified national self’.

A similar critical engagement with the Edwardian period is under way, with the assumptions of the popular interwar soap opera Downton Abbey challenged by the work of Lucy Lethbridge’s Servants; A Downstairs View, or Alison Light’s earlier Mrs Woolf and the Servants; both based on oral testimonies and diaries. History, therefore, becomes a contested battle-ground, and how we remember the past is so often constrained by present political or cultural assumptions.

In this regard, we might also consider whether the death of Princess Diana, mourned by thousands of voices from below, and a seminal event for cultural studies academics, as well as a defining moment in the politics of New Labour, has led to a wider shift in British culture.

Samuel had earlier been the main instigator of the History Workshop, a movement set up at Ruskin College in the late 1960s to (in his words) ‘encourage working men and women to write their own history instead of allowing it to be lost, or learning it at second and third hand; to become producers rather than consumers; and to bring their own experience and understanding to bear upon the record of the past’.

It was extraordinarily fruitful and transformative, opening up new areas of historical inquiry, facilitating the development of worker-historians, and feminist historians and challenging orthodox methods of investigating the past. It sustained a journal and numerous conferences and its workshops contributed directly to wider political movements, such as the Women’s Liberation Movement, whose first conference was held at Ruskin in 1970.

There now seems to be a revival of the ‘history from below’ tradition driven by a new generation of radical historians. No less than four major conferences are being held on the fiftieth anniversary years after the publication of E.P.Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, the seminal text which really pioneered a new way of writing history from below.

Recent initiatives include the ‘Unofficial Histories’ conference, founded ‘to discuss how society produces, presents and consumes history beyond official and elite versions of the past’, while at Ruskin, History Matters, inspired by the History Workshop, is launched this week.

The OU-BBC’s Secret History of our Streets, which told the story of six London streets from a combination of documents and oral testimonies of past and present residents, also found an untapped interest in local community history.

The thirtieth anniversary of the Miners’ Strike next year, as well as the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1, are both likely to provoke more interest and critical debate over their meanings. And, hopefully, more for Mr Gove to think about.


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