What progress has been made this year towards creating a diverse curriculum at WHS?

WHS Classroom

Miss Emily Anderson, Head of History at WHS, evaluates the progress of the diversity in the curriculum working party since September, and reflects on our next steps.

It has been both a challenge and a privilege to have been leading the working party examining diversity in the curriculum since the Autumn Term. Ensuring that our curriculum is fit for purpose in both empowering our students to be active citizens of the world in which they live, and reflecting both their identities and those they will live and work alongside in their local, national and global communities could not be a more vital part of our work as teachers, individually, in departments and as part of the whole school. Such a curriculum would simultaneously support our students and ensure they feel that they belong in the WHS community, and would empower them to understand and champion diversity in their lives beyond school. The curriculum is not a fixed entity, and the constant re-evaluation of it is one of, to my mind, the most challenging and important parts of our professional lives as teachers.

As members of the school community will be aware from his letters and assemblies, in the autumn Deputy Head Pastoral Ben Turner asked staff, as part of our commitment to systemic change, to scrutinise three different areas of our work as a school in order to better inform our future direction. Alongside our scrutiny of the curriculum, colleagues have been looking at our recruitment of students and staff and how we reach out to a broader and more diverse range of communities, and at our work with our students beyond the curriculum, in our pastoral, super-curricular and extra-curricular contexts.

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Examining the curriculum were staff from the arts, sciences and humanities, bringing a variety of perspectives. I wanted to make an ambitious but absolutely necessary distinction from the outset – that we cannot approach the curriculum by diversifying what is already there, but need to create a curriculum that is inherently diverse. We discussed the need to broaden our collective understanding of different identities (the GDST’s Undivided work has been very valuable in this regard), and to model open, honest and often difficult dialogue. The difficulties of the process of change were also considered, especially the transition from an old to a new curriculum, and the fear of being labelled knee-jerk or tokenistic until it became embedded and normal. This is, however, no excuse for not trying. Doing nothing is not an option. Three areas for evaluation emerged for us to take to departments:

  1. The day-to day – teachers’ understanding about different types of diversity, our use of language and resources in the classroom, encouraging more challenging and reflective discussions in the classroom.
  2. The medium term – creating a diverse curriculum at WHS – looking again at KS3, and evaluating our choices at KS4 and KS5 to identify more diverse lines of enquiry or exemplars in existing specifications, or opportunities to move to other boards.
  3. The bigger picture – joining the growing national conversation with exam boards to make changes to GCSEs and A Levels to better reflect diverse identities, critically evaluating the cultural assumptions and frameworks through which our knowledge is formed and which privilege certain identities over others, to problematise and ultimately change these in our teaching.

The reflections that came back from discussions at department level showed that much carefully considered planning is being undertaken across departments, in terms of the individuals whose voices are heard through study of their work, the enquiries that are planned to broaden our students’ horizons and the pedagogical implications of how we create an environment in which diverse identities can be recognised and understood.  

My own department (History) are completely reconceiving our curriculum. My colleague, Holly Beckwith, wrote a beautiful rationale for this in WimTeach last year which I would highly recommend reading.[1] We have been preparing for major curriculum change for a number of years, firstly through trialling experimental enquiries to pave the way, such as a new Y9 enquiry on different experiences of the First World War. Our choosing of a unit on the British Empire c1857-1967 at A Level – a unit whose framework could, if taught uncritically, be problematic in terms of what it privileges, but which enables us to at least explore, understand and challenge such power structures and give voice to some of the people it oppressed through the study of historical scholarship – also helps facilitate changes further down the school as it demands significant contextual knowledge about societies across the world before the age of European imperialism.[2] Now, we are in a position to put in place major and increasingly urgently needed changes for September 2021 at Year 7 and Year 10, which will lead to a transformed KS3 and KS4 curriculum over the next three years.

To pivot back to the whole-school context, I also met with student leaders from each year group who had collated ideas from their peers to feed back. These were wonderfully articulately and thoughtfully put, often critical, and unsurprisingly revealed a great appetite for change. As teachers and curriculum designers, there is a balance to be struck here between taking students’ views into account, and creating coherent and robust curricula where knowledge and conceptual thinking builds carefully as students progress up the school – areas of study cannot simply be swapped in and out. As I have alluded to above, for example we start sowing the seeds of contextual understanding for GCSE and A Level at Y7. Furthermore, this process will take time, as meaningful change always does, and so managing expectations is also something we must consider. In and of itself, modelling the process of systemic change is such a valuable lesson for our students so this must be seen as an opportunity to demonstrate this.

So far, this process of evaluation has prompted profound and necessary reflection by teachers not only on what we teach in the classroom, but on how our own understandings of our disciplines have been conditioned by our experiences and educations. As well as educating our students, we are also continually educating ourselves, often unlearning old ideas. There is still a significant way to go in creating the inherently diverse curriculum we are aiming for, and I look forward to continuing to challenge and be challenged as we work together as a community to, ultimately, try to do right by our students and our world.


[1] http://whs-blogs.co.uk/teaching/vaulting-mere-blue-air-separates-us-history-connection/

[2] Akala, Natives, London, Two Roads, 2019; R. Gildea, Empires of the Mind: The Colonial Past and the Politics of the Present, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2019; P. Gopal, Insurgent Empire, London, Verso, 2019;

To what extent are imperialism and the cultural narrative of the ‘leave’ campaign linked?

Annabel (Year 13) looks at the impact of the British imperial history on the evolving relationship between the UK and the EU.

The Leave Campaign’s bus - From TheTimes.co.uk
The Leave Campaign’s bus – From TheTimes.co.uk

There is an argument to suggest that Euroscepticism, which has been a major part of our political narrative since the 1960s, has an imperialist undertone to it; as decolonisation came to a close, Euroscepticism rose up in its place. There is certainly room for this argument in today’s political climate as similarities can be drawn between the two ideas from an ideological point of view. Nevertheless, the ‘Leave’ campaign has a greater level of complexity to it than merely an overwhelming desire to return to days of imperialist superiority in the 19th century.

Firstly, British imperialism is an incredibly complex area of interest and reasoning for empire building changed dramatically from initial stages of adventure and exploration to its largest point in 1919, where the empire added 1.8 million square miles and 13 million subjects to its existing territory under the Treaty of Versailles.[1] The notion that British imperialism can be associated with a single motivation throughout the entire existence of the Empire is just too simplistic. How then, can we link imperialism to the motivations behind the ‘Leave’ campaign?

There are some commonalities throughout the British Empire’s existence that can be found and therefore associated (or not as the case may be) with the Eurosceptic narrative. Without question there are consistent undertones of British superiority throughout the time as metropole in one of the largest empires in history. Colonialism was associated initially with a desire to explore, and then claim, foreign lands. Humanitarian justification, through Social Darwinism and then increasingly through a motivation to decolonise, was an important aspect of imperialism. Above all, the competition between European neighbours, also imperialist powers at the time, was a key aspect of the British Empire and this is where the possible connection to Euroscepticism can be found.

The British Empire in 1919 – From WashingtonPost.com
The British Empire in 1919 – From WashingtonPost.com

The British relationship with the EU has been complex from the outset and it was heavily debated whether membership should be granted to the UK throughout the 1960s. Britain’s desire to have a special relationship with the EEC due to the Commonwealth trade meant they were rejected by the EEC twice in the 1960s. French president at the time, Charles De Gaulle, determined that the British had a “deep-seated hostility” to any European project.[2] The hostility that De Gaulle mentions could be referencing the peripheral location of Britain and historical competitiveness with European nations that, as previously mentioned, were a key aspect of British, and indeed European, imperialism. There is arguably therefore a compatibility with a reluctance to be a part of the EU and the anti-European narrative of the British Empire.


The “deep-seated hostility” that De Gaulle mentioned could suggest that there is perhaps an unconscious bias of the British population against any collaborative effort amongst European countries. Bernard Porter argues in his work The Absent-Minded Imperialists that the British population was largely unaware of the impact of Empire on British society and held a more subconscious affiliation with its principles as opposed to a direct support of the motivations.[3] There are two possible consequences of his argument in relation to the EU, that the imperialist subconscious merely drifted away from the British cultural narrative, or that there remains a subconscious affiliation with the principles of British isolationism and European competition in the British population. It is undoubtedly difficult to pinpoint which one it is, but it is nonetheless interesting to consider how far the European relationship has been impacted by the British Empire.

From VoteWatch.EU
From VoteWatch.EU

The British relationship with the EU has always been complex; Britain was not one of the 11 countries to join the Eurozone in 1999 and only voted to join the EEC in 1973, long after the ECSC was formed to prevent Franco-German conflict in 1951. The economic narrative of the EU was a key one in the ‘Leave’ campaign, as seen on the bus above, but arguably it was much more about cultural identity than the economic relationship between the UK and the EU. The tones of placing internal British priorities above those of regionalist policies in the EU could be seen to hold an aspect of British isolationism which was a key pillar of British imperialism in competition with other imperial European powers.

Ultimately, while there are certainly correlating elements between the narratives of imperialism and that of the ‘Leave’ campaign, it is incredibly difficult to pin down how far it is a conscious decision. There is, perhaps, an “absent-minded” aspect to the narrative that has retained some of the colonial narratives present in the days where the Empire placed Britain as a leading world power. Therefore, the desire to return to a powerful place, as was the case of Britain as an imperial power, might have provided a sub-conscious motivation for the desire to break away from historically rival European countries.



Murphy, R. Jefferies, J. Gadsby, J. Global Politics for A Level Phillip Allen Publishing, 2017

Porter, B. The Absent-Minded Imperialists, Oxford University Press, 2006

Porter, B. The Lion’s Share: A History of British Imperialism 1850-2011, Routledge Publishing 2012

[1] Ferguson, Niall (2004b). Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-02329-5.

[2] “1967: De Gaulle says ‘non’ to Britain – again”. BBC News. 27 November 1976. Retrieved 9 March 2016.

[3] The Absent-Minded Imperialists, Bernard Porter (2004)

Holly Webb, Teacher of History at WHS, considers the importance of metacognition when exploring historical context

When contextualising, students are encouraged to reflect on their own thinking process – how has the context in which they live influenced the conclusions they come to in the classroom? This metacognition is essential when tackling some of the more controversial and difficult topics in history. But the importance is broader than this. As Holly shows, this sort of thinking is crucial in our current climate.


Huijgen, T. & Holthius, P. (2018) ‘Man, people in the past were indeed stupid.’ Using a three-stage framework to promote historical contextualisation, Teaching History 172 pp30-38

‘Many students may not explain or interpret historical phenomena successfully because they tend to interpret the past with their current beliefs, value and knowledge.’ (Huijgen and Holthius p30)

Tim Huijgen and Paul Holthius present an argument for the importance of historical context both as something for students to be taught, and as a potential barrier to learning. I certainly agreed with their emphasis on the importance of contextualisation. Historical contextualisation is crucial for students to interpret the past successfully, but also has broader benefits, such as the opportunity to build empathy and compassion, and for students to reflect on their own thinking process – how has the context in which they live influenced the conclusions they come to in the classroom? It also has benefits across the subjects – how can Oliver Twist, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or a painting by Vermeer be interpreted successfully without historical context?

Huijgen and Holthius used a three-stage framework to teach contextualisation:

  1. Create historical tension in order to discuss the limitations of present-oriented perspectives. This would usually be done with posing a provocative statement to the class, with examples such as:

‘Nowadays you have to be 18 years old to drink a beer in the Netherlands. However, in the Middle Ages even very young Dutch children drank beer regularly, even at breakfast. Moreover, the average consumption of beer was around 300 litres of beer a year. Did these people not know any better?’

‘View the picture. The beach patrol was measuring bathing suit length in 1922 in the USA. If the bathing suit was too short, a woman was asked to leave the beach. Is that not ridiculous? Should women not decide for themselves what to wear?’

  1. Construct historical context. This could be chronological, spatial, political, economic, or socio-cultural.
  2. Use historical context to enable historical reasoning. They argue that historical contextualisation only feels meaningful when students have an opportunity to explain, interpret, compare, or evaluate historical phenomena. This could be done by reviewing their initial responses to the question from the beginning of the lesson, then using their acquired contextual knowledge to improve their answer.

Huijgen and Holthius’s investigation is clearly relevant to our focus on metacognition. Encouraging students to reflect on what factors may have influenced their ideas and adjusting those ideas as they acquire more knowledge allows them to reason and form judgements more effectively. However, what stood out to me when reading this article is how crucial contextualisation is when discussing the more controversial, difficult topics in History.

‘To promote historical contextualisation is not to promote the condoning of what we now consider unacceptable historical events and agents’ actions’ (Huijgen and Holthius p30)

In our current climate, this point is absolutely crucial. Students are not wrong to argue that racism or misogyny is awful, but they must acknowledge that the different beliefs, values and knowledge held by people at the time if they are to understand why events happened the way they did. Year 9 historians are currently completing an enquiry investigating ‘how revolutionary were the suffragettes?’ It would be impossible for them to answer this question successfully without considering how different views about gender were a century ago. That being said, Huijgen and Holthius could also acknowledge that historical sources often give prominence to particular social groups, which can potentially skew our understanding of values at the time. For example, low levels of literacy and violent intimidation of African-Americans in the Deep South in the early twentieth century means that sources from the region expressing opposition to the racist Jim Crow laws are few and far between, which could lead historians to reach the lazy conclusion that ‘racism was seen as more acceptable back then.’ For historical contextualisation to be most successful, we must understand what views were held at the time, but also consider how easy it was for people to express those views.

The results from this study showed that students taught using this framework more consistently demonstrated historical contextualisation in their writing. I would have liked to see further analysis considering to what extent using historical contextualisation improved the quality of their work, and their ability to answer a range of questions set. Nevertheless, I found this article tremendously valuable as it highlighted the importance of context and the consideration of perspectives different from our own when forming judgements both in and outside the classroom.

Helen of Troy – the secret to becoming timeless?

In WimLearn this week, Imogen in Year 10 looks at the secret to becoming timeless, looking at the story of Helen of Troy through different historical periods.

It is uncertain if Helen of Troy ever lived, and yet nearly 3000 years after she first featured in Homer’s epic, the Iliad, she remains infamous – her story and reputation timeless. Set in the final year of the bitter Trojan war, the Iliad tells a legendary tale and includes characters both mortal and immortal. Although appearing only a handful of times, the portrayal of Helen is a striking one.


“No blame that the Trojans and strong-greaved Achaeans
have suffered so long on account of such a woman;
terribly does she seem like the immortal goddess to look on.”



At this point in the poem, Helen herself has not even spoken, but already has been pegged as almost divine in her beauty as well as having the blame for the brutal war placed upon her.

The strange thing is that once this claim was made, Homer neglected to elaborate further. She was supposedly the most beautiful, but no specific features are described, instead leaving it to the imagination. But deliberate or not, employing such a fluid image was a powerful choice, as after all beauty is so subjective. This ambiguity is appealing to the masses, since by allowing the individual to tailor their own perception of her, she can truly become the most beautiful in their eyes.

In a way the Iliad revolves around Helen, but Homer did not require her so much as a character, but more as the ultimate prize – compelling and beautiful, but nonetheless a possession. As a result, her personality is vague, with the little dialogue she has simply presenting her as wracked with regret. One of the first things she says is, “How I wish I’d chosen evil death.” (3.173) Her words are used just to support her reputation, for the more she blames herself for the sufferings of the war, the more the reader dwells on the part she played.

There is something so intriguing about being called the most beautiful woman in the world and yet wishing for death. That, coupled with a lack of detail regarding her personality and background, is what most likely led other writers to continue it, resulting in contradictions and strange embellishments to her tale. For example, in Euripides’ play Helen, she was told to have been born from an egg – peculiar, but it is thought that this was accepted by the Ancient World. And Helen had become so famous that not one, but two different places in Greece, Sparta and Athens, each paraded an eggshell and claimed it was the very eggshell from which she was supposedly born.

Regardless, it seems much of her acclaim stemmed from those in Ancient Greece. Although details like the timeframe, scale and Helen’s involvement in the war are debatable, many historians believe some kind of Trojan war did actually take place. Assuming one did, the aftermath of it would have brought many exaggerations and tales, due to war being a quick path to glory. These would have served to make the war even more renowned, simply adding to her considerable reputation – the greater and more terrible the war was, the more worthy the cause must have been. And had she existed, very few people would have seen her in person, resulting in speculation which was just another factor inflating her stature. For although some would scorn her alleged behaviour, many had genuine faith in her, or at least her beauty. A cult dedicated to her even sprung up across Greece, just like one would have been created for deity.

But how did the myth of Helen survive long after the Ancient Greek’s demise? Her status was not just maintained orally but would have also been displayed in more tangible ways like her appearing in writings, art and architecture, all of which outlived the people. They helped preserve her story, but ultimately it speaks for itself. Even for Greek mythology the tale was unique, and so it was embraced widely by other civilisations. Around 800 years after the Iliad she briefly appears in Roman writer Virgil’s Aeneid. Her story continued to be told even once the gods in it were discarded in favour of other religions like Christianity – somehow in early Middle Ages Helen began to be taken as almost an equivalent temptress to Eve. Skip a few centuries and the Elizabethan playwright Marlowe had coined a catchphrase for her – ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?’ Even today, she continues to be a source of interest, inspiring more literature and films.

Therefore, what is the secret to becoming timeless? With Helen, there does not seem to be a single factor which can be isolated. Perhaps one could argue it was her iconic story, with her being beautiful enough for thousands of men to die over. But this alluring beauty is also reliant on speculation and mystery – all-important as a fixed image of her would never align with every individuals’ opinion. And so this opens up an important question: could there ever be another woman considered to be the most beautiful in the world? Nowadays, technology would undermine any such claim by eliminating this key element of mystery. Yet this is not necessarily a negative thing. Helen may be a timeless figure, but in the end being beautiful and famous brought her a sad life. The first time she speaks she begs for death, and in the Odyssey by the time she is back at Sparta she has resorted to putting herbs in her wine; essentially drugging herself against her grief. She seems broken – would anyone want to be timeless if that is the price?

Why are Belgian politics so complicated?

This week’s WimLearn post is an extract from Hannah B’s EPQ about Belgium’s political system.

According to the Belgian constitution, citizens of this European country have the right to freedom of language, since its independence on 4th October 1830, and can, therefore, choose which language to conduct their daily lives in. Article 30 states that ‘only the law can rule on matters involving language, and only for acts of the public authorities, and in legal matters’ (Vermeire Elke, Documentation Centre on the Vlaamse Rand, 2010). The freedom of language for citizens also complicates political matters, in which national polling occurs because votes from both language-speaking sides must be collated and moderated for a fair system.

Additionally, article 4 states that “Belgium has four linguistic areas: The French-speaking area, the Dutch-speaking area, the bilingual area of Brussels Capital and the German-speaking area.” Around 55% of the Belgian population belong to the Flemish community, whilst 40% belong to the Walloon community, and just 1% to the German Community. However, 16% have Dutch as their second language, whilst 49% have French as their second language. Overall, this means that for the national government, ratios must be put in place to ensure that one linguistic group does not outweigh the other on the basis of their population.

Above: Image from https://brussels-express.eu/wacky-world-belgian-politics/

Over the past 20 years, Belgium has not seen much political stability, largely due to their language divide. Belgium has a multi-party system, which means that political parties are often required to form coalition governments with each other. An issue that immediately arises when a coalition government must form is the parties’ cooperation.

In Belgium, this is made difficult by the languages that the two sides speak. Before political decisions are even made, the efficiency of the decision, that is who should form a coalition, is hindered. Whilst the regions are able to communicate with each other, both sides have preconceptions, and therefore hesitations to working together. These doubts are supported by the fact that, previously, Belgium has been without a government for 541 days, due to disagreements. The affect the language divide has on cooperation is seen here.

The fact that instant interpretation is often required would imply that the reason for Belgium’s political instability is due to their language divide, however this is not the case. There are 43 administrative arrondissements, which are an administrative level between the municipalities and the provinces. Each party must form a list of candidates for each of these arrondissements.

Arrondissements are split so that Flemish-speaking and French-speaking citizens will not fall under the same one. Many rules surrounding the use of language are put in place to minimise disagreement, and regional superiority. During political campaigns, there are restrictions on the use of billboards, and they only last for around one month. In national politics, politicians can choose to speak any of the three official languages, and the parliament will provide simultaneous interpretation. In this case, it would suggest that language is not the issue, but, instead, conflict of interest. All other official correspondence, such as tax returns, or passport requests, must be conducted in the official language of the region. At the age of 18, all citizens are automatically placed on the electoral roll, and are subject to compulsory voting.

Teaching History

Dr Anna Field, teacher of History at WHS, explores an article from the journal Teaching History and how dialogue in the classroom can create layers of historical understanding

‘1069 and all that: the dialogic understanding of the Norman legacy in Chester’, Teaching History 175 (June 2019)

“…dialogue can be harnessed in the classroom and enable students to create meaningful connections between factual, conceptual, and contextual knowledge.”

Bird and Wilson’s impressive study investigates the role of classroom dialogue in the production and application of historical knowledge across a three-lesson Y8 enquiry on the Norman legacy in Chester. Using methods from sociocultural psychology, the authors argue that the students’ historical knowledge both shapes, and is shaped by, dialogic interaction in the classroom. How this is achieved, they contend, remains an understudied area. While the article’s focus is on classroom dialogue as a whole rather than questioning per se, the authors’ examples of classroom exchange demonstrate the importance of teacher questioning in the creation of explicit and tacit historical knowledge. The result is a carefully planned a well-executed consideration of the interaction between different levels of historical knowledge in KS3 pupils, which further suggests how dialogue can be harnessed in the classroom and enable students to create meaningful connections between factual, conceptual, and contextual knowledge. The authors largely succeed in their aim to shed light on the different ways to create these links.

According to Bird and Wilson, dialogue stimulates interaction and movement between layers of factual, conceptual, and contextual knowledge and thus promotes historical understanding. In the first enquiry lesson, the process gauging students’ knowledge unearthed misconceptions surrounding chronology. While the students could make inferences, it was clear to the teachers that deeper knowledge did not yet underpin those inferences, and was not yet at their ‘fingertips’ during class discussion. Transcripts of dialogue from the next two lessons demonstrated the importance of teacher questioning – ‘probing’ – in how students started to evaluate significance and generate collective knowledge. Teacher questions were guided by student inferences, using an open format that encourages students to use their explicit historical knowledge – facts, dates, events – to develop a tacit understanding of the ideas and beliefs that sources from this period reveal. The trajectory of questions can be traced from ‘wow, tell us more! What we learn from this’; to ‘how can we learn that information [from the sources]?’; to ‘why were they [the Normans] smart?’.

These questions generated a ‘moment of contingency’ in one pupil that guided the whole class to read the primary texts in a specific way. The authors showed that these interactions fostered a deeper and verbally explicit connection between ‘layers’ of historical understanding in the individual and the wider group. In the words of Bird and Wilson ‘in this way knowledge becomes dynamic, changing and flexibly understood rather than inert, static and brittle’, a key quotation which demonstrates the contribution their study makes to History education pedagogy.

Prized Pets

Agnes in Year 7 presents a history of prized pets, from the Egyptians to Salvador Dali.

Watch below:

Is money the root of all evil?

Imogen (Year 9)  looks at the connection between money, power and the monarchy in this short presentation arguing as to whether we can see money as the root of all evil.

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Does Great Britain need to move on from the Second World War?

Rosie, Year 11, shares her recent WimTalk with us, discussing issues surrounding the way Britain remembers its past to shape its future.

September 2nd, 1945, Tokyo Bay. On the deck of the American battleship USS Missouri, the Japanese Instrument of Surrender document was signed by representatives from Japan, the United States, China, the United Kingdom, the USSR, Australia, Canada, France, the Netherlands, and New Zealand. World War Two was officially over. This ceremony aboard USS Missouri lasted 23 minutes, and yet the impact of what it represented rings on to today, almost 75 years later.

Now, in 2020, Great Britain has not moved on the Second World War – far from it. Everywhere in Britain, wartime memorials and museums can be found, remembering the half a million soldiers and civilians who lost their lives. Most British people have relative who fought in or experienced the war, and there are few who would not recognise the phrase ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ from Churchill’s most famous speech. And this prominent remembrance is not just confined to the older generations: It is an integral part of every child’s education too. Hundreds of books, TV programmes, podcasts and films have documented the war with great success – even recently. The modern economy, too, remembers the war, with Britain making the final war loan payment to the United States only 14 years ago in 2006. Overall, the memory of the Allied victory in the Second World War – “our Finest Hour” – inspires the national sense of pride in our military history that has become a rather defining British characteristic.

But the question is: why does Great Britain cling on to the Second World War more than any other nation involved? And is this fixation justified, or is it time to move on?

One perspective is that the British viewpoint of the Second World War is bound to be different because of geography. The triumph of physically small island nation prevailing in war is something we can celebrate and take pride in. For other nations involved – larger landlocked countries with shifting borders – this is less easy. For example, Germans today are less inclined to look back, not only because of the radical changes in society since the Third Reich or lack of a victory to celebrate, but also because modern Germany is physically different to the earlier Germany of the Kaisers, Weimar, Hitler and the divided states of the Cold War. Instead, Germany today looks forward, not backwards, which some would argue has allowed it to become the economic giant on the world stage that it now is.

And that’s another thing – how much has Britain changed since the Second World War? Of course, it has modernised along with the rest of the world: politically, economically, and physically, but so many of the same institutions remain as were present in 1939. Our democratic government, our monarchy, our military and traditions have survived the test of worldwide conflict twice in one century, the collapse of the British Empire and the Cold War in a way that those of France, Spain and Italy have not.

Above: Photo from wikimedia commons

The Second World War was a clear clash of good vs bad – peace vs aggression. Britain was not directly attacked by Hitler but stepped up to honour a promise to defend Poland against invasion for the greater good. Remembering the Second World War makes Britain proud of these national values, as had Chamberlain not roused from his policy of appeasement and committed Britain to the sacrifice of money, empire and life, had Churchill not fortified the nation’s most important alliance with Roosevelt, the world would certainly be a very different place today. And so, if a nation’s psyche comes from the values and institutions it possesses that have stood up throughout history, is it really any wonder Brits take pride in looking back?

On the other hand, perhaps after so many years it’s time to recognise that we are not, in fact, the same Britain that we were in 1945. In 1944, British economist John Maynard Keynes spoke at the famous Bretton Woods conference. He said that the Allies had proven they could fight together, and now it was time to show they could also live together. In achieving this, a genuine ‘brotherhood of man’ would be within reach. At this conference, the IMF and World Bank were created, soon followed by the UN, to promote peace and prevent the kind of economic shocks that led to war in the first place. But at the same time, these organisations were a convenient way for the main Allied powers to solidify their power and privileges. Since then, a European has always headed the IMF, and an American the World Bank. The UN Security Council is dominated by the five permanent members, whose privileged position, some say, is nothing but a throwback to the power distribution on the world stage of 1945. By clinging on to the war, are we really clinging on to the idea that Britain is still a leading power, and modern economic giants such as Germany and Japan do not deserve to disrupt the power structure of 1945? We pour so much money into Britain’s defence budget to maintain this powerful status – into remembered threats and sometimes archaic strategies: submarine warfare, aerial dogfighters and manned bombers. The Second World War was certainly a catalyst for change across the globe. Perhaps now, Britain’s inability to let go of these old power ideals and designated roles of nations prevents us from achieving the ‘brotherhood of man’ that, in 1944, Keynes dared to dream of.

We are told that the value of history is to ‘learn a lesson’ to prevent us from repeating the same mistakes again. But there is an argument to say that this concept is a consistent failure. So many conflicts around the world seem to be caused by too much remembering: refreshing tribal feuds, religious division, border conflicts, expulsions and humiliations. Doesn’t remembering cause Sunni to fight Shia or Hindu to fight Muslim? Is it memory that maintains dispute in the Balkans, the Levant, Mesopotamia? Perhaps the emotion sparked by remembering the details of our past is better left in history when it has the capability to spark aggression, conspiracy theories and irrational anger. Today’s politics of identity seem provocative enough without being fuelled by history, so perhaps we should heed Jorge Luis Borges who wrote: ‘The only vengeance and the only forgiveness is in forgetting’. This advice has been proven to work over time – Nelson Mandela’s philosophy in 1990s South Africa was to focus on ‘truth and reconciliation’ and draw a line under his country’s recent history – closure. Can Britain not find closure on the 20th century?

What I can conclude is that there are two perspectives to take on this statement: there are some who hold onto our history as a lesson for the future, as a reminder of the importance of peace and action for the greater good, who will never be able to forget the Second World War because of the core British values that it represents. And then, there are those who think it is time to let go of the past, and adapt our nation’s values to suit our current position in the quickly-changing world that we live in. And so, the only question I have left to ask is: which are you?

“Vaulting the mere blue air that separates us”: History and connection

Ms Holly Beckwith, acting Head of History at WHS, looks at how history can connect past, present and future.

A true heroine left the world when Toni Morrison died last August. At university, I devoured her novels and vividly remember reading The Bluest Eye, Jazz and Beloved. They connected me to another experience and a different way of viewing the world. They enabled me to see the pain and disruptive effect of trauma on consciousness and identity and feel a deep sense of empathy for fictional characters and an understanding of their experiences that I had not and could never have. In her novels, we vault “the mere blue air that separates us” effortlessly.

History is all about vaulting the mere blue air. Through studying the stories of the past, we vault the mere blue air of time and circumstance to access another, often unfamiliar and distant, experience. We connect to the human stories of the places we live and the places we travel. One of the reasons for studying the past is to render the unfamiliar, familiar, whilst simultaneously understanding the distinct otherness of the past.

What I loved about reading Toni Morrison’s novels is the powerful way she set about disrupting what we think of as familiar. In Beloved, she confronts ‘national amnesia’ on the subject of slavery in America, invoking the genre of the slave narrative and disrupting it by bearing witness to the interior lives if the slave narrator, whose story was hitherto constrained and shaped by the Abolitionist cause. She disrupts the single hegemonic narrative, using the novel as a vessel through which to tell multiple stories. She urges us to seek new connections to the past but she also views the past as something that cannot be easily contained, its remnants multiply in memory and ‘rememory’ and ghosts.

As History teachers, one of our purposes should be to disrupt the familiar and received stories of the past that are propagated in the media and public discourse. One of my lesson mantras is that asking questions about the past is just as important as constructing answers to them. While the National Curriculum in England for History aims for pupils to “know and understand the history of these islands as a coherent, chronological narrative, from the earliest times to the present day” and a secure chronological grounding is important, it is fundamental that we don’t see the past as something that can be retold as a single story.

Such epistemological concerns have been part of the debate among History teachers for years, but there has been a drive more recently to render our curricula more diverse. While our current History curriculum provision at Wimbledon High engages with multiple and varied narratives of the past (by, for example, exploring connections along the Silk Road in Year 7 or using Said’s Orientalism to question our way in which Year 13 perceive colonial encounters) there is always room for us to rethink how we can do this in new and interesting ways. This will be particular for us over the next few terms and why we are aiming to build up a wider conversation surrounding diversity and curriculum planning when we host a conference at Wimbledon this summer for History teachers within the GDST and at our partnerships schools.

Our study of the past should vault the mere blue air and seek new connections.


Tracy K. Smith https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/06/opinion/tracy-smith-toni-morrison.html

Toni Morrison The Origin of Others