Why are we so afraid of our own past?


by Kenneth Roy

A chance remark of mine on a television programme, picked up by Alex Salmond, led to the first minister making a public commitment: the rectorial address of Jimmy Reid would be made available as a resource on the website of Learning and Teaching Scotland. Until a few days ago, when I was provoked into it, I had not bothered to check if this was ever done.

Sure enough, there it is – an extract from the speech, with a link to the full version, and a well-written accompanying text, easily accessible to the present generation in a way that it never was to the last. It ought to teach the young people of Scotland, those of them with a lively interest in the modern history of their own country, much of value about the ethics which underpinned the UCS work-in. It should also encourage them to consider such wider issues as man’s alienation from his own physical surroundings, the corrupted values of a society built on the accumulation of possessions, and the need for idealism in the young.

I hope this is what is called education, although one can never be sure what education means to the functionaries of the school system, a system which seems to have little to do with intellectual freedom or the fulfilment of the natural desire of young people to make sense of their own lives.

Why, then, was I provoked into visiting the website of Learning and Teaching Scotland to see if my chance remark and Alex Salmond’s subsequent initiative had come to anything? I was driven there by the  opposition to the Scottish Government’s scheme for the introduction of a course of Scottish studies in our secondary schools. I wanted to see for myself how Scottish studies actually works.

I think back to my own education in the banal, stultifying school system, from which I escaped to play golf. Even golf had to be more rewarding than the compulsory rotation of dates, mostly English ones, of events of which I cared little then and care even less now. The dates stick in my mind to this day, unrelated to context or understanding; simply as numbers. That was Scottish education: an institutionalised form of alienation. Jimmy Reid learned more in Govan public library.

The Scottish Conservatives’ education spokeswoman, Liz Smith, insists that Scottish history is already ‘adequately taught’ in schools and has voiced fears about the ‘pseudo-nationalist undertones’ of the new subject.

There was another way of teaching history to the pupils of the Falkirk area, where I was born and brought up. It could have been connected to the experiences of the immediate community. To have taught the history of the cattle-drovers who came from the Highlands to the market at Falkirk would have stimulated a wider discussion of the forced clearance of our northerly neighbours; to have looked closely at the history of the Bonnybridge foundries would have introduced a deeper study of how the industrial revolution impacted on the lives of our fathers and grandfathers; to have watched a bus being built at Alexander’s in Camelon would have inspired us to consider the growth of public transport and its importance in our lives.

These thoughts are not original. They are essentially the philosophical conclusions, near the end of his life, of R F Mackenzie, a school-teacher crucified by the system just as countless thousands of young Scots have been crucified by it. Mackenzie, in his incomparable journey of the soul somewhat narrowly entitled ‘A Search for Scotland’, moved me with his beautiful vision of the teaching of history – to explore, for example, how the coming of the railway changed rural Aberdeenshire forever; and in this way to find a mind-expanding link between the past and the present, the local and the universal.

Actually, I was taught no Scottish history. None whatever. I was taught English history. I see now that it was a form of subtle political indoctrination – an effort to make me into an obedient little Unionist boy, a North Briton; and it succeeded, up to a point. But mostly it just filled my head with dreams of becoming assistant professional to Mr Panton at Glenbervie.

So I am amused by the political opposition to the plan outlined by the minister for learning and skills, Alasdair Allan, for the new compulsory subject which will examine Scotland’s history, literature, language and culture. The Scottish Conservatives’ education spokeswoman, Liz Smith, insists that Scottish history is already ‘adequately taught’ in schools and has voiced fears about the ‘pseudo-nationalist undertones’ of the new subject. The pseudo-Unionist undertones of traditional history teaching in Scottish schools seems not to have occurred to Ms Smith, who was taught at fee-paying George Watson’s College, and went on to teach in that establishment, where it is safe to assume that the Jimmy Reid rectorial address is not accessed on an hourly basis.

I would be fascinated to know what Ms Smith considers ‘adequate’. It is such a tight-lipped little word; it tells us all we need to know about the Scottish Conservatives’ view of the priority that ought to be given to Scotland’s history, literature, language and culture. It probably tells us all we need to know about the Scottish Conservatives. But at least it is a semi-coherent argument. The best the Liberal Democrats can do, through their education spokesman Liam McArthur, is to accuse the nationalists of playing politics with our children’s education. Let them both read ‘A Search for Scotland’, and repent.


Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review