#BLM: We need to self-educate

Earlier this month, anti-racism protesters toppled the statue of Edward Colston. As I watched the video of the statue plunging headfirst into Bristol Harbour, I realised I had no idea who Edward Colston was. I was even less aware of Bristol’s leading role in slavery. For over a hundred years, it was one of England’s most important ports for the international human trafficking ring known as the Transatlantic Slave Trade. More than 500,000 Africans fell victim to Bristolian merchants like Colston.  

Like many across the UK, I knew none of this before watching Colston fall. Throughout the country, hundreds of other imperialists are cast in bronze and glorified atop finely decorated plinths. This fact is only now in the public eye. Would we have been more aware, had our schooling been any different?

The Black Curriculum is a group that has petitioned the government to educate young minds on Britain’s dark past. However, while the inclusion of Black history is undeniably important, changing the National Curriculum can only be the first step in implementing lasting reform. 

In 2017, a survey of secondary school history teachers revealed that the majority were concerned about changes to the curriculum. They had neither the funds for new teaching resources nor access to the training needed to teach new modules. 

If we are to reshape the way history is taught, the government must address the longstanding issues that are curtailing the education system. According to the Education Policy Institute (EPI), secondary schools are currently facing a 10% rise in pupil numbers against a decreasing number of teachers. 

Budget cuts, too, have worsened the inequality in our education system. The EPI notes that independent schools remain unaffected, while state-funded education is suffering. This has widened the rift in teaching quality. It is difficult to imagine that Black history will be taught to the same standard across the board.

The education system is already strained. Changes to the National Curriculum must be gradual; funding must be provided for new textbooks, teachers must be recruited and trained in the new syllabus. This will take time, years even. 

We must not sit idle while we wait for these changes to take place. We need to self-educate. I’ve always been an avid reader, but few of the books I’ve picked up were written by black authors. Since leaving secondary education, I’ve had seven years to educate myself on people like Edward Colston, but until recently I never did. As well as focusing on what we weren’t taught, we need to focus on what we can teach ourselves. 

A study by the University of Pennsylvania found that “the traditional teacher-responsible design for education in universities conflicts with what we know about how people learn”. Self-education, where responsibility lies with the learner themselves, tends to be more effective. When based on extrinsic rewards like grades, they argued, intrinsic learning suffers. 

This is not surprising. I can barely remember what I covered in GCSE history. The moment I closed the exam paper, two years of classroom-based learning went flying out of my brain, much to my history teacher’s dismay. Yet, I can remember most of what I learned from history books I read in my own time. 

If we want to build a genuine awareness of Britain’s colonial past, we must rely on ‘natural learning’ as much as state education. The school system, short-staffed and underfunded, is ill-equipped to teach us everything we ought to know. 

Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square. The Bengal Famine in 1943 is thought to be one of his greatest failings, with researchers attributing it to a “policy of denial” in London.

From Bristol’s slavers to the Bengal Famine and the Caribbean plantations, the list of colonial atrocities is long. It cannot be taught in its entirety at GCSE or A-Level. Nevertheless, incorporating black history is an important step in ensuring that we are informed of our past. British history is inextricably tied to Black history through centuries of white violence and oppression. They are two sides of the same coin.

The process of embedding this into the National Curriculum requires fundamental educational reform that could take years. Racism is a daily reality, and it will not wait quietly in the meantime. We must take the opportunity to educate ourselves, so that we can better understand Britain’s colonial crimes and the men like Edward Colston who perpetrated them.

Would you you would like to write a reply? If so, please contact the opinion editor at david.dahborn.13 [at] ucl.ac.uk.

Images: James Eades/Unsplash.


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