MICHAEL WOOD’S VIEW
Michael Wood on… diversity in history education
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?