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Teaching (anti-Catholic) History

For those who might be interested, this article of mine appeared in this week’s print edition of the Catholic Herald:

If history is concerned with recounting the past, then integrity demands that it hold regard for truth. To admit otherwise is to relegate the historical to the whimsical demands of the present. 

William Cobbett, himself a Protestant, recognised this. While writing a history of the Reformation he repeatedly outlined the motivation for (and the manner in which) history had up until that point been distorted to tell a mischievous, anti-Catholic tale. Yet he also, at times, struck a surprisingly hopeful note. “But TRUTH is immortal,” he wrote, “and though she may be silenced for a while, there always, at last, comes something to cause her to claim her due and to triumph over falsehood.”

It is this pursuit of truth that must lie at the heart of the teaching of history in our schools. Sadly, it frequently does not. To recognise this is not to broach something new. Rather, it is to return once again a recurring theme. Indeed, in 1920 Catholics, including Belloc and Chesterton, gathered to discuss the problem of the teaching of history in our schools. Their assessment could be republished today as a more or less accurate account of the state of history teaching in our schools.

The social landscape has changed from the early 20th century, but not much. While wider cultural prejudices towards Catholics have receded, the bias that permeates our historical sense of being has not. Myths still abound: Catholic monarchs were uniquely brutal (post-Reformation that is – little is made of the Catholicism of the Coeur de Lion or King Alfred); Protestantism brought with it prosperity and freedom; and Catholics are not quite English – or, at least, their allegiances can be legitimately questioned. Whether it is in the telling of key events or in the evaluation of key figures, there exists a whole artifice of anti-Catholic orthodoxy which permeates popular culture.

This is not to say the bias is obvious. Anti-Catholic history is not in the explicit statement. It is far more subtle than that. The selection of sources, the weight given to particular events, the omission of key details, the general tone, the assumption of progress – all go to shape a very particular understanding of historical events. As things stand, popular school textbooks used in many schools perpetuate this subtly anti-Catholic history. The most obvious incidences can be brushed away, but the rest, seemingly innocuous, seep quietly into growing minds and disrupt any sense of continuity between our faith, our sense of who we are and that of our ancestors. 

Of course, one could easily respond that teachers should be countering anti-Catholic history as a matter of course, but that misunderstands the position in which many teachers often find themselves. First, it is not uncommon for history, particularly in the early years of secondary school, to be taught by non-specialists whose knowledge of key eras is limited.
Secondly, the subtlety of the anti-Catholic narrative is such that it can be perpetuated unwittingly, especially when this same anti-Catholic story is what most teachers will themselves have received during their own schooling.

Thirdly, teaching workload means that many teachers will simply not have the time to create such a huge store of plans, resources and materials, or indeed undertake the research required to begin to haul down some of the myths presented to us as truth. The temptation will be to use what is already present and seek to challenge any obvious issues as they occur.

There are wonderful historians, past and present, who can and do tell a different tale. Yet little of what they say gets much of a systematic airing in many of our history classrooms. This is because their accounts contravene the standard narrative and so provoke caution, limiting the likelihood of any publisher taking up the cause and thereby limiting wider broadcasting of such views. To question the established narrative is, after all, a political act; better to politely submit, or remain ignorant, than be deemed a reactionary. This is a tragedy, both for the neutral and disinterested pursuit of truth, but also from the Catholic perspective of equipping our young to counter a world that will misrepresent who we are, where we have come from and what we believe. 

Yet, as Eamon Duffy has argued, the established myths cannot hold – in the name of intellectual integrity, if nothing else. This might sound like a call for historical ‘revisionism’. It is, rather, an appeal for our schools to increase awareness among our young of what Newman referred to as the fables and myths of the anti-Catholic record. The issue here is simply truth. It is, after all, our island story, too.

The Church in England and Wales has long helped to fund the development of resources and work schemes for the RE syllabus offered in Catholic schools. It might be time to focus attention on our history departments, too. Could the more eminent among our number collaborate to create high quality resources to challenge the anti-Catholic chronicles? We can only hope. But what is clear is that a sense of who we are is entwined with what we believe. And a more accurate sense of the former might just help us more effectively communicate the what and the why of the latter.

Michael Merrick is a teacher at a Catholic secondary school in Cumbria