Welsh History – Who Controls the Past?
Llywelyn, Owain Glyndŵr, Tryweryn , The Welsh Not. If you didn’t learn about these topics in school, then perhaps you went to school in Wales. Many young Welsh students leave school knowing more about ancient Egypt and Chinese history than that of their own nation.
The elimination of Welsh history in some locations is nothing short of a national tragedy. History is so many things to a nation: the understanding of communities, culture, and the rise and fall of civilisations. History gives us a collective memory; a sense of connection to our land and community.
As Eric Hobsbawm described it:
“The destruction of the past or, rather, of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late 20th century. Most young men and women at the century’s end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in.”
In place of a well-crafted foundation of Welsh history, students are given a smattering of British history, often taught with the same England-centric textbooks used by students in England.
Gwynfor Evans, Plaid Cymru president from 1945 to 1981, wrote about the history of Wales, (Aros Mae / Land of my Fathers: 2000 Years of Welsh History) a tale of English oppression and linguistic heritage, though his passionate writing was not much concerned with historical complexities.
Such tales of the survival of Wales against the odds helped inspire a new generation of activists who were even willing to go to prison in the name of their nation. One such person was Dafydd Iwan who wrote the popular song “Yma o Hyd” (Still Here), a song demonstrating the appeal of a simple historical message to the nation.
In 1959 in Flintshire the director of education was condemned for promoting Welsh history. “They fear that you are creating in the mind of a child an awareness that there is such a concept as the Welsh nation,” he said of his critics.
Since devolution, Welsh is no longer a nation that has to look backwards to see that it exists. Yet the fact that a Welsh government has come about at all seems due to the historical perspective people have drawn from Wales’ past, even if their reading of that history was sometimes rather slanted.
In 2003, the Welsh Assembly Government established Curriculum Cymreig, a wide-reaching national curriculum embracing cultural, economic, environmental, historical and
The Curriculum Cymreig expects these elements in every school’s history syllabus:
• Understanding how lives and localities have been shaped by the past,
through learning about the history of Wales, its political, economic,
social and cultural aspects.
• Visiting historical sites, using artefact’s, making comparisons between
past and present, and developing an understanding of how these have
changed over time.
• Learning about the relationship of Wales with other parts of the UK
today and in the past.
• Learning about past and present links with Europe and the wider world,
using a range of scales of reference – local, regional, national, British,
European and world history of Wales, its political, economic,
social and cultural aspects.
That sounds very well and good but for one important problem: the actual lessons and subjects are decided by local districts, many of which are struggling for resources and under pressure to achieve higher scores in standardised student assessments.
This matters because of what students are missing. “The soft bigotry of low expectations,” an assumption that those students in locations of historically low educational attainment should not be academically challenged, literally means students are being denied the patrimony of their story, an understanding of their country and society.
George Orwell’s 1984 sums this up well. “Who controls the past,” according to the party slogan, “controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” A lack of history or false history breaks down the psychological independence of its subjects.
Though devolution is marching slowly along, Wales needs a firm focus on full independence, so we may control our own future. And to control our own future, we need to control the past—and affirm our own history by making Welsh history a requirement for every student in Wales.
Catherine Severson is a boat builder and sailor, having studied traditional Celtic wooden boat building in Wales and Ireland. She has worked in both the USA and Japan as a radio presenter and magazine editor.
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Sign the petition to the Welsh Assembly Government
“We call on the National Assembly for Wales to urge the Welsh Government to make Welsh History Compulsory in our schools from the age of 7. Teaching about Wales from the Celtic times right through to the present Day, including for example Llywelyn, Glyndŵr, all other Welsh native princes, Tryweryn, The Welsh Not, The Norman conquest, Act of Union and Industrialisation. As It appears that not all of Welsh history is being taught and is selective to cover certain periods and events.”