5 March 2009

Cornish nationalists advocate the teaching of Cornish history in schools in Cornwall. I’m going to look at what this might mean and some of the questions it throws up. As ever, nationalists differ, as other groups do, in their views about all these issues; there is no one Cornish nationalist view. Cornish nationalism and nationalist on my blog should always be understood as partitive.

I support the teaching of local history in schools; and, indeed, as many aspects of local particularisms as can be managed by a school timetable. Pupils should explore the local geography, economy, and language or dialect, for example. Cornish history in schools in Cornwall is not an exclusively Cornish nationalist issue: it is an educational issue that everyone can support. I should definitely like to see pupils in schools in Cornwall studying at an appropriate level the contended and complex history of Cornwall and that includes nationalist interpretations and arguments, though not those alone. However, history in schools is not ideological, it is not a mask for politics.

There are, of course, constraints on what a school can do: knowledge is vast, the curriculum crowded, and the school day and pupils’ attention are finite. School history cannot do everything and teachers have to select what to teach. Presently, as well as the history of the mandatory national curriculum of England, they do have the discretion to teach the history of their locality so there is no bar on a school in Cornwall teaching local history. This happens to an extent already with individual aspects of the history of Cornwall and with the sense of place project. A recent inspection report (October 2008) on Cape Cornwall secondary school at St Just commented favourably that “Pupils have a very good understanding of the culture of their local area, as shown in an assembly celebrating the unique nature and culture of West Cornwall” and added that the pupils “are starting to have a lot more contact with the local and world communities.” It is not only through history lessons that school pupils learn about Cornwall; and they are learning. Have a look at this post for positive work on the Cornish language in our schools.

I am now going to explore Cornish history in schools in terms of history skills, structure, content, and purpose.

History skills

Before looking at questions about the history of Cornwall in schools let me begin with general history skills, the basis of all history teaching and learning, what should be the foundation of all school history. History in schools should focus not only on facts, often contended and often incomplete, and on dramatic events, but also on the skills needed to judge and interpret history and its sources, and how to seek out sources. What we do not know, what we think is probable, and what we know are easily muddled in school history – as they are in life. Pupils need to know how to distinguish between facts, interpretations and opinions, and values and judgements; between likelihoods and wild surmises; to understand uncertainty and disagreements in knowledge; and the interplay of continuity and change. From this melange pupils should be encouraged to reach their own, often provisional, views. I believe the primary aim of education is to encourage pupils into rational independence.


What exactly does teaching the history of Cornwall in schools mean structurally?

Does it mean replacing the present mainstream history syllabus with one focused wholly on Cornwall rather than England and Britain and the world or does it mean including details of the history of Cornwall in the mainstream course or adding on a self-contained course on Cornish history? Mebyon Kernow’s policy of a “national curriculum for Cornwall” which would include “Cornish history” in all schools in Cornwall is doubly ambiguous: what is meant by the terms “national curriculum for Cornwall” and “Cornish history”?

I think too that we need clarity about the future of the present sense of place project. Does nationalism seek to abandon it or to build upon that work, using that approach, developing the project and spreading it to more and more schools in Cornwall? Or is something else sought, a history more sharply focused on nationalist issues and mandatory in all schools in Cornwall?

There is an unhelpful absence of details about structure.

Content and purpose

First, I think Cornish history for schools should not see the past as surer and more monochromatic than is warranted by the evidence; it should appreciate, as academic historians do, that there is, alongside the certainties, in the history of Cornwall complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty, and contended interpretations. In the Aristotle’s teeth posts on this blog I look at some of the off-beam and contended “Cornish history”.

Second, there is not one set of true facts open to one true interpretation that establishes a one true Cornish history.

Third, following on from these two points, how far would a Cornish history syllabus be monocentric or diverse? It would be unacceptable and a lost opportunity for education if, for example, we had only a tendentious and purposive Cornish nationalist take on the history in schools rather than a history recognising complexity, ambiguity, and a diversity of views, interpretations, and arguments. I think most people, whether nationalist or non-nationalist, believe there should be diversity.

However, diversity raises its own questions. This is an aspect of my argument in several posts: I believe that ‘Cornish’ does not necessarily imply nationalist and I reject nationalist attempts to appropriate Cornishness and the very word Cornish and give it a reductive nationalist definition. People in Cornwall have various outlooks and we should resist, in history as in everything else, language which characterises and dismisses non-nationalist views as non-Cornish and thus seeks to deny them indigenous legitimacy. There is no one “Cornish point of view” and nationalist arguments are not the only ‘Cornish’ arguments in any sphere.

Bearing that in mind, what does a diverse approach in Cornish history mean? Are we talking about side-by-side arguments presented as distinctly indigenous “Cornish” and foreign “English”? Is such ethnic labelling of arguments legitimate? I believe that pupils should be encouraged to focus on the merits of the reasoned arguments rather than to characterise them in polarised partisan terms such as cornocentric or anglocentric, inappropriate in schools at least.

Fourth, I think a basic aim of Cornish history in schools should be to help pupils unravel what is particular to Cornwall and what is common experience throughout England and the western world, pupils being encouraged to see the events in Cornwall not parochially but in their relevant wider contexts. A theme for this history should be the relationship between Cornwall and (the rest of) England – how it changes over time and how it shows continuity.

Fifth, there seems to be a hope and expectation among some that Cornish history in schools will in itself nationalise many pupils by leading them to claim a particular personal identity and a particular political view of the place of Cornwall out of England and thus over time create a nation of nationalists. What I think is important is that pupils have a genuinely diverse history curriculum, learn historical skills, and reach their own provisional conclusions, what I earlier referred to as rational independence. Although schools have an important role in socialising children, history in schools should not be ideologically purposive.

Of course mutatis mutandis these considerations apply to all local history in all schools in England. I certainly think pupils and students everywhere should learn about the history of their locality.


As for identity, which much exercises some strands of Cornish nationalism, out of this history the question of identities and changes in them would arise naturally and the conflicting ideas could be explored. I doubt if all pupils would see events in history identically or claim identical identities. Let me also here question the mistaken notion that one has to choose only one identity, Cornish or…


It’s time for nationalists to clarify how they see the purpose, structure, and content of Cornish history in schools remembering that most pupils – and we are talking about history in schools not university or adult library books – are not at all interested in the unsure minutiae of historic politics; their interest is likely to be excited by the everyday life of people, their dreams and fears, their joys and despairs and miseries, their labours and leisure, and any school history must focus on those.