You’d think GCSEs should be unbiased, seeing how every 16 year old in England needs to take them. For years I was told that General Certificates of Secondary Education (known as the aforementioned GCSEs) would be critical to my academic career. Although framed as ‘education’, these exams are designed to shape your mind at the most vulnerable and malleable age. So what happens when a three-year course spoon-feeds an entire generation compliance and lies about their own country?
From the very beginning, History GCSE taught me not to ask questions. Short essay questions worth ten marks are centered around ‘how far do you agree…’ or ‘to what extent…’ statements, but a maximum of two counter-claims are allowed. Full points are only awarded if my conclusion supports the exam’s assertion, no matter my personal opinion.
That doesn’t seem especially problematic, until my grades are based upon my answers to ‘questions’ like “The policy of Appeasement was justified” or “The Treaty of Versailles was reasonable at the time’’. I had no choice but to validate these arguments in my coursework and final exam. That said, anyone else studying basic WWII History outside Britain wouldn’t even consider taking those statements seriously.
In real life the true answer is always this: they weren’t justified. At all. Britain was at fault and there’s no denying it, but I wasn’t allowed to say that unless I was trying to fail my class.
The short, facts-only questions weren’t any better. Examiners only wanted us to list evidence of the (occasional) noble deeds Britain participated in, or controversial politics regarding other countries. An example would be the honourable connotations of ‘describe the part played by the League of Nations in humanitarian work’ versus the clear saltiness behind ‘what aspects of Communism were hated in Eastern Europe’.
Not to mention source-based questions, which involved judging the reliability of newspaper articles or political cartoons. Here, textbook sources were always considered the most accurate and trustworthy, but no textbook I ever had mentioned Winston Churchill endorsing chemical attacks on Iraqi citizens. He’s just the great war hero who led us to victory against the Germans.
What’s taught isn’t great, but what isn’t taught is even worse. After five years of secondary school history, with three of those years being GCSEs, I’m not exaggerating when I say no mention of colonization ever crossed my path. I’ve rarely met someone who was ashamed of Britain’s past, or knew enough about it to take it seriously. Colonization is definitely not in the curriculum – it’s a little hard to imply the British Empire was a force for peace.
Still, that doesn’t stop almost 45% of Britons from believing it improved the lives of colonized nations, according to the Independent Newspaper. To put that in perspective, we’re talking about around 30 million adults. It’s embarrassing to consider some of these adults probably have qualifications in History too.
What scares me isn’t colonization deniers. Those people are easy to discredit. What scares me is people willing to admit colonization happened, and still being able to find reasons to justify it.
Of course, no discussions about Ireland ever occurred either, despite the fact Dublin is an 8-hour drive away from London, and their revolution against us only ended in 1921. Even Britain’s more recent atrocities, which still have a deep impact today, are never brought up – for example, the massacres in Kenya during the 1950s. The British curriculum never taught me anything that couldn’t be blamed on another country.
I spent almost 5 years essentially studying nothing but WWII (“It was all the Germans’ fault!”), with maybe a light sprinkling of the Cold War (“Those damn Russians, am I right?”). Even then, nothing I was ‘taught’ can now be considered true, because all the historical arguments I’ve ever encountered (and never really been able to question) are biased to the point of illegitimacy.
But what worries me most is no one back home seemed to notice this deceit. None of my friends did; I know I certainly didn’t until I left the country. If you search for ‘bias in GCSEs’, little results appear on google. It just isn’t expected from a generally respected democratic system and thus, never talked about.
Rivalries between China and Japan impacting the studying of their shared history is generally acknowledged worldwide, with plenty of articles written surrounding the topic (ironically, even the BBC has spoken out about Japanese schools leaving out facts). It appears Europe and North America refuse to acknowledge the hypocrisy in ‘exposing’ other regions for their bias. Where are the articles about the USA’s lack of coverage about slavery in schools? Or about Canada’s overlooking of their Indigenous genocide? Both of these still affect their countries deeply to this day.
It’s clear the system has to change.
Covering up controversial historical events is not new, yet that doesn’t change the fact I cannot help but feel ashamed for not realizing it sooner in my own country. I would encourage us all to question anything we are expected to believe, because the best propaganda is the one you don’t even notice is there.
The British History curriculum trains its future generation to believe we are a great country that is always right. Ignorance has become deeply ingrained in the roots of our culture. People wonder why disasters like Brexit happen, but how can a population believe we need help from the rest of Europe if we are taught our empire did nothing wrong all along?