I suspect most readers will have seen the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. One of the early parts of the performance involved our green and pleasant land being converted into the industrial landscape of modern Britain. For those who did not see it, you can play it here:
Anything that sparks a discussion about history is, for me, a good thing. So what would the conversations be like in the pubs, coffee shops and canteens across the country? What would I want the children I had taught to be saying as they discussed the performance over their dinners? I would want people to be able to watch this and to appreciate it for what it is, a rather romanticised vision of the British past. I would want them, too, to be able to criticise the performance on historical grounds.
What does one need to know in order to critique this interpretation? One must first know enough to understand it. If one does not know about the women’s suffrage movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, then the NUWSS marching around does not mean very much. One might guess that the black people who arrived on a ship were immigrants, but the role they play in the story is lost if one does not know about the Windrush or the British invitation to people in the West Indies to come to work in Britain; it would probably be all the more meaningful to see this in the context of the decline of the British Empire after the Second World War.
So just in order to appreciate the interpretation, to understand what it is getting at, one needs a fair amount of historical knowledge. But what does one need to know in order to critique it? A key component of any critique of a historical interpretation is a consideration of the selections made by the people who put the interpretation together. In order to understand the selection, one needs to know what was missed out. Why, for example, do we get the women’s suffrage movement, but not the Chartists who campaigned for working-class political representation in the 1830s and 1840s? Why do we get Caribbean immigrants, but not the Irish immigrants who constituted the largest group who came to Britain in the 1950s? What about immigration from India and Pakistan, or Kenya, or Uganda, or Poland? We were shown Victorian industrialists, led by Brunel, imagining a new world with workers setting out in the singular pursuit of their mission, but we saw nothing of the living conditions of those who came to cities such as Manchester.
The interpretation of the British past presented in the Olympic Opening Ceremony most certainly can be critiqued. As a work of art, I must admit to finding it quite impressive, but as a historical narrative it is calling out for critique. This is something that any Year 9 pupil should be able to do, provided he or she knows enough about the past to identify where selections have been made in terms of putting the narrative together. Pupils who are ignorant of how British society developed in the nineteenth and twentieth century will, however, be in no position to construct a critique of this interpretation, however much we ask them to do this or teach them the ‘skills of analysis’.
Criticality, in this sense, emerges from a complex web of historical knowledge.