A brief history of history: a numbers game, or a political tool?

It is a maxim that is oft-repeated. “Those who cannot remember the past,” wrote George Santayana in 1905, “are condemned to repeat it.” For thousands of years, humans have been fascinated by the past. We’ve recorded it in sagas in the depths of winter, carved it into the stones of caves, and performed it on stage and screen with no small amount of creative liberty.

But where does one draw the line between history and factual records? In my opinion, what society imagines to be true about our past, our heritage and our experiences is as important as ensuring that the dates and incidents of history are accurate. The emotions and images we carry along with the tide of time are far more powerful than battle records and fatality numbers. Social memory is a fickle thing: easily swayed by fear, anger and pain. Failing to acknowledge that is a dangerous thing; it is vital to teach the experiential, the intimate and the emotional alongside the raw data and numbers.

If you only teach children about the dates and figures of war, you should be aware that you risk letting a darker teacher whisper in their other ear: bigotry. The way grandma or grandpa felt during a conflict is far more powerful and tangible than the simple numeracy of fatalities in an incident. Emotional memory is powerful.

Propaganda makes leering monsters out of opponents, and demons out of those who are different to ourselves. One needs to only look at the games children played in the Great War: memorising the names of weapons and shooting enemy ‘Jerries’ in the street. It is alarming how easy we can become willing to harm and kill those who we are told are different to ourselves. What is played with sticks and stones in the street turns into something far uglier with age.

The emotional memory — memories of grandma’s house being blown to bits in the Blitz, memories of Uncle Jim coming home a changed man — is what will stay with a family, not the death toll from Dunkirk. And while this can be fascinating and useful for historians, its political potency has caused many to resist teaching it in school.

‘Teach the facts’ is something often voiced by politicians and teachers, but something that is either impossible or dangerous. When the memory of the ‘enemy’ is virulent in people’s minds — be that of an extremist group, a foreign nation, or those from another religion — choosing not to offer the human alternatives to that anger and hatred and leaving a vacuum of figures is a dangerous alternative. We need accounts in history of humanity. We need to see the people behind the numbers.

Fake news and misinformation only works when people are angry enough not to believe what is right in front of them. Any teacher can demonstrate the sacrifice of Indian soldiers in World War I or World War II through numbers, but when a child only hears negative stories about South Asians at home, a far different picture emerges than one of wartime heroes.

That’s why the Gul Mawaz Khan Memorial Foundation will be working with BAME families to bring people’s stories to life and take them to new audiences, and campaigning to diversify the UK’s historical narrative to include the millions of Arab, South Asian and African soldiers who gave so much for Britain. It’s easier to paint people as monsters when they are robbed of their history and their humanity in the public eye.

We propose a curriculum that not only includes statistics and quantitative data but a curriculum that includes the many intimate stories of humanity, decency and friendship in the trenches. A history where minorities are portrayed as human beings in the history of war — not numbers on a spreadsheet.