Tantrums About History Don’t Help Education

Students on both sides of the Atlantic have declared war on the past. 

Here in the UK, students at Oxford University recently held a protest march past landmarks in the city that are linked to Britain’s colonial past. This was to mark the first anniversary of the #RhodesMustFall campaign to have statues of Cecil Rhodes, the colonialist and educational benefactor, torn down.

Although the march itself was not well attended it attracted national media attention after Oxford’s chancellor, Lord Patten, announced that students who don’t like Cecil Rhodes should “think about being educated elsewhere.” His stand is a remarkable display of backbone in the academic world.

Meanwhile, Cambridge University agreed to remove a statue of a bronze cockerel after students argued it had been unfairly taken from Africa in the nineteenth century and should be repatriated back to Nigeria. The statue had been in place at the University since 1930 but today’s students argued it should be returned because, “The contemporary political culture surrounding colonialism and social justice, combined with the university’s global agenda, offers a perfect opportunity for the college to benefit from this gesture.”

Cambridge students also want memorials to slave owner Christopher Codrington and Jan Smuts, former Prime Minister of South Africa, removed. Elsewhere in the UK, students are just as eager to put the past on trial and have called into question campus monuments to Queen Victoria.

Over in the United States, the Royall Must Fall group succeeded in getting Harvard Law School to stop using a crest which included the seal of eighteenth century slave owner Isaac Royall. The crest was adopted in the 1930s and since then has been displayed on buildings and merchandise associated with the school. It is only with the current wave of student protesters that the crest has come to be interpreted as somehow condoning slavery. 

Late last year Georgetown University responded to student protesters and agreed to rename two buildings on campus, Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall that had been named after slaveowners. Students demanded the institution show an increased awareness about its racial legacy. The 16-member Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, comprised of students, faculty and administrators, has recommended the buildings be renamed Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall.

Elsewhere in the U.S., the war on the past has taken a more surreal turn. 

Harvard has dropped the title “House Master” and replaced it with “faculty deans” after students complained that the label “master” served as a reminder of slavery. And protesting students used the same dubious logic to demand that Lebanon Valley College change the name of Lynch Memorial Hall, named in honour of a former Irish American College President. The building has now been renamed Clyde A. Lynch ’18 Memorial Hall, so as to avoid any possible implication that the college was recognising the lynching of black people by the Ku Klux Klan. 

Students are raging against history and when the past is judged according to today’s standards, it provides an immense supply of atrocities and injustices for them to rail against. In this respect, history serves a useful function for young people who want to use it to assert their moral superiority over their unenlightened ancestors. Fighting against the past affords students an opportunity to display their moral righteousness and certainty to full effect.

However, as the Harvard students show us, when history is presented as a morality play rather than a search for the truth, it no longer has to have any relationship to reality. Pitching the benefits of hindsight that come with an entirely different social, economic and political era against a decontextualised past allows today’s students to take the moral high ground. 

As a consequence, current protests against the past obscure how far society has progressed, the great strides that have been made in tackling oppression based on race, gender and sexuality. Indeed, in allowing youngsters who lead privileged lives with a reason to believe that they too are victims, this denial of social progress appears to be a prime motivation driving the protesters.

Complaining about history is far easier than challenging injustices in the present. The past is never able to answer back and defend itself and arguing against the past rarely entails adverse consequences for today’s protesters. 

In demanding the removal of statues, crests, and the names of buildings students show a childish approach both to history and to the contemporary problems society faces. Those championing the removal of statues consider themselves absolved of responsibility to advocate intelligent solutions to today’s problems.

In many ways, today’s students are simply acting out the lessons about the past they have been taught at school and university. For many years, history teaching has been dominated by the assumption that it needed to be made “relevant” to the lives of modern students and used to meet a range of instrumental objectives. They are often asked to imagine the past as they would have experienced it themselves, then to reflect upon their own feelings.

For example, a history lesson for young British children involves them being told to crouch down under a table squashed up next to each other. After staying like this for some time the teacher will then inform them that this was what it was like for people traveling from Africa to America in slave ships. The children will then write about how they felt. 

In higher education, the instrumentalisation of history continues. For several decades, college students have been urged by postmodern professors to deconstruct knowledge in order to expose ideology and the workings of power. Too often, the take home message is that studying the past has no positive justification other than highlighting decontextualised examples of oppression and injustice.

Young people today are encouraged to see the past through the narcissistic lens of their own emotional reactions. And when it offends them, it needs to be literally deconstructed through the tearing down of monuments. 

Although ostensibly focused upon historical figures and events, these current student campaigns tell us far more about the present than the past. In ransacking the past to find a justification for applying the label of victim to themselves in the present, they inadvertently reveal the moral bankruptcy of our education system.