Michael Wood on… di­ver­sity in his­tory ed­u­ca­tion

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Michael Wood is pro­fes­sor of pub­lic his­tory at the Univer­sity of Manch­ester. He has pre­sented nu­mer­ous BBC se­ries, and his books in­clude The Story of Eng­land (Vik­ing, 2010)

Last year at the Univer­sity of Manch­ester (where I am a pro­fes­sor of pub­lic his­tory), a Bri­tish stu­dent of So­mali an­ces­try wrote a thought­ful let­ter to her pro­fes­sor say­ing that the his­tory course didn’t re­ally speak for her, or to her, and that the eth­nic bal­ance of the staff didn’t make her feel at home in the study of his­tory. The re­ac­tion of her pro­fes­sor was an hon­est ad­mis­sion that things were not good enough, and a whole­sale re­view of admissions strat­egy, cur­ricu­lum and ca­reers plan­ning be­gan.

A ‘con­ver­sa­tion cor­ner’ for stu­dents of colour was started, plus a se­ries of lec­tures by in­vited speak­ers such as Hakim Adi. A trial study day on im­mi­grant his­tory was held, us­ing sources in the Ahmed Iqbal Ul­lah Race Re­la­tions Re­source Cen­tre in Manch­ester Cen­tral Li­brary. Top­ics ranged from fash­ion and cul­ture to pol­i­tics and the fight for so­cial jus­tice. There were let­ters on the Pan-African Congress in Manch­ester in 1945; is­sues of Moss Side’s com­mu­nity news­pa­per from the 1960s; and in­ter­views with mem­bers of the lo­cal BAME (black, Asian and mi­nor­ity eth­nic) com­mu­nity about life in mul­ti­cul­tural Manch­ester. The feed­back from stu­dents was that they were amazed at the re­sources lit­er­ally on their doorstep, and they went away in­spired to look fur­ther.

I re­called that day when I read the Royal His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety’s Race, Eth­nic­ity and Equal­ity Report, pub­lished in Oc­to­ber. Shock­ing though its con­clu­sions were, they won’t have come as a sur­prise to many in ed­u­ca­tion. Only 11 per cent of un­der­grad­u­ate his­tory stu­dents come from BAME back­grounds, even though they make up nearly 24 per cent of the over­all un­der­grad­u­ate pop­u­la­tion. In­cred­i­bly, 96 per cent of staff in­volved in the teach­ing of his­tory at univer­sity are white; fewer than 1 per cent are black. The con­tent of his­tory cour­ses is also seen as too white and too Euro­cen­tric – all the more dis­ap­point­ing when you con­sider the sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ments of BAME his­to­ri­ans, es­pe­cially over the past decade.

The RHS con­cluded that the sit­u­a­tion was “un­ac­cept­able”, but that trans­for­ma­tion will re­quire “sub­stan­tial struc­tural and cul­tural change” within the dis­ci­pline. Though change is hap­pen­ing, the in­tro­duc­tion of new top­ics into the cur­ricu­lum and an in­crease in staff di­ver­sity is tak­ing far too long. The RHS rec­om­mended equal­ity and in­clu­sion train­ing, and pos­i­tive ac­tion to in­crease di­ver­sity. Think­ing about the chil­dren of the next gen­er­a­tion, they con­cluded, it is a “mas­sive im­per­a­tive” that we widen the taught his­tory cur­ricu­lum in schools to re­flect the di­ver­sity of our so­ci­ety and of hu­man his­to­ries.

All this is es­sen­tial and should have hap­pened long ago – not only be­cause in­clu­sion and di­ver­sity re­ally mat­ter, but also be­cause mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives are at the heart of un­der­stand­ing his­tory. As for the cur­ricu­lum it­self, one area that surely needs a fresh look is ‘the em­pire’.

The Bri­tish em­pire shaped all our lives, what­ever our eth­nic back­ground – whether your an­ces­tors were Ir­ish soldiers, Scots sci­en­tists or Cor­nish min­ers; whether they were among the mil­lions of poor work­ers in mills and mines; whether they were from Africa, the Caribbean or the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent. If his­tory is to give mean­ing and value to our so­ci­ety, we should study the em­pire, warts and all. It is also im­pos­si­ble to find an­other sub­ject so rich and fas­ci­nat­ing, that in­vites stu­dents’ en­gage­ment with ideas and sources, and de­vel­ops judg­ment and em­pa­thy over such com­plex and wide-rang­ing is­sues.

Uni­ver­si­ties could also of­fer greater en­gage­ment with grass­roots his­tory ini­tia­tives such as Black His­tory month, or events linked to lo­cal li­braries, so­ci­eties and his­tory fes­ti­vals. The first HistFest London in early De­cem­ber, for ex­am­ple, fea­tures an ex­cit­ing list of his­to­ri­ans in­clud­ing Hakim Adi, Olivette Otele, Ke­hinde An­drews and David Olu­soga: teach­ers who can help us en­rich aca­demic and pub­lic un­der­stand­ing of the past.

BAME stu­dents must see them­selves rep­re­sented, and their an­ces­tors’ part in Bri­tish his­tory recog­nised. And his­tory, as it is taught in our schools and uni­ver­si­ties, needs a broader fo­cus and al­ter­na­tive per­spec­tives in or­der for us to truly un­der­stand who we are and how we got here. Af­ter all, isn’t that why we study his­tory?

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