British values, the History curriculum and Moral Capital

Part 2 of the Teachers’ standards (2012): Teachers uphold public trust in the profession and maintain high standards of ethics and behaviour, within and outside school, by: …not undermining fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs

‘Fundamental British values’ have a history. A well-designed History curriculum should enable teenagers to understand how attitudes and beliefs are not static, and how beliefs have changed in Britain, over time. An example of this is the origin of the belief that slavery is wrong and the story of the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade. In part, this is a question of History teachers taking an interest in historiography. The first stories about the abolition of slavery I heard as a pupil were similar to the interpretation offered by the film Amazing Grace. The ‘take-away’ for me then (Ian Dawson’s term for what we remember) was that the slave trade was abolished because Wilberforce persuaded Parliament that it was morally wrong. There are many problems with this simplistic interpretation, brilliantly explored by Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery as long ago as 1944, and more recently by historians such as James Walvin. In their accounts, background conditions such as the American Revolution and changes in trade, and the agency of slaves themselves, play a much more powerful role in explaining abolition. In recent web resources designed by teachers and for teenagers, richer and more nuanced accounts are offered; further example here.

So it is simple then: History teachers just tell an up to date story of the abolition of slavery and we can guarantee that the ‘take-away’ for teenagers will be a sound understanding of individual liberty, say, and the rule of law? Except that it is really isn’t that simple, for reasons to do with pedagogy, how we learn and the nature of the subject itself.

As Arthur Chapman explained in his article in Teaching History 143,  Time’s arrows: using a dartboard scaffold to understand historical action,  we have put a lot of effort into helping pupils with causal explanations as History teachers, but much less into helping them to understand claims about the actions of people in the past. His dartboard scaffold is an approach to dealing with the teacher’s problem: showing us a way to model an exploration of the certainty of claims about acts, beliefs and aims.

Make no mistake though, there is a learning problem too, explored by Shemilt and Pickles later in the same edition of Teaching History. We tend to assume that beliefs current in our own time and our own culture are in fact timeless, when they are not; historical thinking is an unnatural act. We have abandoned empathy and thrown out an understanding of perspectives with the bathwater.

Can more recent historiography help? I have been reading Moral Capital by C.L. Brown, a book inspired by the ‘desire to explain the decisions to act, to make sense of the relation between cultural prescription and individual action’, (Brown, 2006:1). He explores at great length the connections between changing background conditions, (within the American Revolution, Quakerism and the Evangelical movement), to challenge a series of ‘false binaries’ (Brown, 2006: 459) about the abolition of slavery. These include:

  • abolitionists were selfless or self interested
  • abolitionists were humanitarians or hypocrites

He advances a number of claims I would love to see pinned to Chapman’s dartboard:

  1. Colonial assemblies in America wanted to limit enslaved Africans arriving and blame Britain for the slave trade
  2. Granville Sharp wanted to overthrow slavery and establish the liberty of the subject ‘as an inviolable right in British law’ (Brown, 2006:458)
  3. Free black people in Britain wanted to expose the horrors of slavery and assert their own rights and liberties
  4. Evangelicals wanted to promote Christianity in the West Indies and make evangelicalism socially acceptable in Britain
  5. Quakers wanted to abolish slavery and renew their distinctive approach to their faith in a country where pacifism was not respected

We aren’t the only History teaching community concerned with these issues; see the ideas of Peter Seixas in Canada, explored most recently by Alex Ford in Teaching History 157. Ford argues that History is not just ‘a passing on of traditions from one generation to the next…’ but ‘demands that we engage with the complexities of the past…that we interrogate the mentalities of the people we struggle to understand and that we recognise the limits of our understanding. The models of progression we choose to build need to reflect this’, (Ford, 2014: 35).

I am not suggesting that this will be easy. But I am suggesting that if, as History teachers, we don’t think carefully about how to help teenagers understand the actions, beliefs and aims of people in the past, they will be less well prepared than they should be to understand what might underpin ‘fundamental British values’ now, and acquire their own moral capital.



  1. This is really interesting Ali – and it makes me reflect on all the times that I dismissed ’empathy’ lessons. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of ‘putting yourself in the place’ of someone from the past, but caught in the trap, in that I also think we need to try to understand how and why decisions and ideas were made and acted on in the past.

    I wonder if we sometimes also miss the chance to consider that decisions in the past, just as today, weren’t rational, in fact were (and are) positively irrational? Identity, tradition and faith drive decisions today as they did in the past.

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  2. Hi Ed yes that’s just it. We need to make the attempt to understand the decision-making of others, without assuming too much in terms of identification. It seems to be assumed by some that we can explain easily what fundamental British values are today without reference to their origins. This is an area where the study of History can be of value to young people, and teachers should take this seriously, as Michael Fordham does, for example in the UK, and Peter Seixas in Canada. But there are issues for us as teachers and there are also difficulties for pupils we need to take into account.

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  3. This is an interesting and very timely read for me, thanks for sharing.
    I think the important thing about reimagining empathy is that it needs to be backed up with reading, or it will descend into that “imagine you’re a badger” stereotype where the conclusions drawn are baseless and therefore pointless. This is time consuming and, for non-specialists at least, undesirable.
    But, it is really important to nail this because an understanding of why people acted the way they did in the past helps to build towards that sense of “otherness” I mentioned when I was ruminating on threshold concepts; it’s also important to help students understand the ripple effect. For example, understanding the role of evangelicals and Quakers in the abolitionist movement feeds into the GCSE Crime study: the changing nature of religion led to a stronger focus on reform in the punishment system.

    Finally, on an entirely tangential note, I’ve been adding RE links into our KS3 program of study today and I can see that the abolition of slavery is much richer in content for the “impact of religions” strand than I had previously realised. I think I’ve got some more reading to do! Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person


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