Return of History

Aatish Taseer, in an interesting and provocative opinion piece for the New York Times, senses an insurgent and dangerous return of history in the “old world”, by which he means the Middle East and parts of Asia. While the object lesson is the excess of the Islamic State, “living history” is breaking out more generally:

The picture that emerges is one of a terrific tension between the dead past and the ways in which it is being remade to fit the needs of the living present. The Islamic State’s treatment of history is particularly extreme, but a similar return of history is occurring with varying degrees of intensity all across the old world.

But is this a phenomenon of Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist historic lineages, as Taseer sets it out? I’m writing this in the strange white light of the British Museum’s Great Court, where a teabag and cup of hot water costs twice the global poverty line and a dense crowd absorbs the ambience of the neoclassical facades. Isn’t the point rather that all history should be living, and also that it’s living use should be the subject of constant, informed critique?

Rather than history being the enemy, isn’t the danger the misappropriation of history by specific interests, wherever and whatever they are? Isn’t this why the critical teaching of history should be at the heart of every university’s curriculum and why politicians, who understand the sway of the past on the direction of the future, are so frequently exercised by the school curriculum and the national syllabus?

Taseer’s argument rests on his experiences in India and in Sri Lanka, and on the excesses of the Islamic State. He sees the turn to history as a consequence of disillusionment with modernity – with “the shallow sense of the word — that world of highways and blue-glass malls and men in the uniforms of foreign companies — does not satisfy the demands for this ‘living history’”.

But these highways, blue-glass malls and foreign companies have their own antecedents that are founded in colony and empire. Sri Lanka’s extreme, violent and virulently nationalistic Buddhism is grounded in Britain’s management of colonial Ceylon and the mystical adventurism of late nineteenth century America. It is deeper and more complex than a recent rejection of western trappings; indeed Sri Lanka has a glitzy Buddhist iconography that gives Vegas a run for its money.

And it’s not just in the old world where history is constantly appropriated to the cause of a dangerous and violent present. The constant refrain of America’s gun lobby, as the US staggers from one mass murder to the next, is that the right to bear arms is grounded in the concept of Liberty and is enshrined in the Constitution; as much the essence of the nation’s historical identity as the particular form of Buddhism that has shaped Sri Lanka’s politics in recent years.

There are a fair number of double standards at work, and on all sides. When the IS started to blow up Palmyra there were calls from the British world heritage lobby for an alliance with the murderous Assad regime for the higher cause of preserving Syria and Iraq’s antiquities for future generations. But, back here in the British Museum, there is no truck with the argument that the “Elgin marbles”, looted by a British aristocrat from the Parthenon in 1801, should be returned to Greece. Britain has refused to even discuss the matter and so Greece’s government has dropped the case (although media interest has been more in the involvement of George Clooney’s wife).

So, rather than seeing the proclivity to “living history” as a pathology in the Middle East and Asia, Aatish Taseer’s argument needs to be made more widely. Rather than limited to interpretations and misinterpretations of Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist texts and traditions, the return of history is continuous, and everywhere.

It would be a sad and sterile world if the “highways and blue-glass malls” were to smother out the richness and controversy of the past; the sort of world over which Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen would rule. The point is rather that history needs to be at the heart of the curriculum; to be taught, argued and understood in the context of the present and in the emerging opportunities for the future. As such, should have a central place in the curriculum, as a foundational subject for enabling and refreshing a critical public sphere.


Aatish Taseer, 11 December 2015: “The return of History”. New York Times:

Digital Heat

Britain now has a digital heatmap. This shows the varying levels of digital competency across the country and according to age, gender and income. Because the map is based on a representative sample of face-to-face interviews, it is good impression of what people say they can do, and have recently done, using smartphones, tablets, computers and online resources. Overall, the heatmap demonstrates the value of investment in digital infrastructure.

This useful tool is the work of Go ON UK, in partnership with the BBC, the Local Government Association, Lloyds Banking Group and the London School of Economics. There are all sorts of implications in this data, from the provision of basic information, access to online banking and financial services, retailing and entertainment. There are also key implications for education. Whatever the mode of education provision, online resources and basic digital competencies are important. For countries lacking the comparative wealth and resources of the United Kingdom, there are pointers here to ways in which investments in infrastructure and basic digital competence can accelerate access to education, and improvements in provision.

This is how the heatmap works. Using standard polling techniques, Ipsos MORI asked a sample of people to describe their competency across a set of basic digital tasks, clustered together as five digital skills: managing information, communicating, transacting, creating and problem solving. These are pretty close the long-established basics for information literacy, as generic outcomes for education.

Fig Digital skills

These competencies were then mapped against the standard socioeconomic indicators produced by the Office for National Statistics, and information on regional variations in Internet availability.

There are, or course, limitations to the utility of this data. As Ellen Helsper from the London School of Economics points out,

The Heatmap suffers from legacy issues; the current map uses and adapts existing data and measures which do not reflect the latest thinking about the types of access, skills and usage which indicate inclusion in a Digital Britain. Researchers and policy makers urgently need to broaden their thinking about digital skills. There is too little knowledge about the basic digital skills needed to participate fully in everyday life. More work is needed to think systematically about which digital skills are necessary to achieve tangible beneficial social outcomes and avoid those which are potentially negative.

Despite this, the results are instructive. As expected, age is a factor, and just how much this counts is very clear from the survey results. 93% of all 15 to 24-year-olds have the full set of basic digital skills and only 1% has none. In comparison, for 55-64-year-olds, as the most senior age group that is mostly in employment, 13% still have no digital skills and only 72% have the full set. This comes with the near-saturation of access to smart digital devices; 82% of all adults in the United Kingdom now have a PC or a laptop in the home, and 71% have a smartphone. From an education perspective, digital is everywhere and young Britain is online.

Fig digital capability by age group

Looking to educational outcomes and employment, the survey shows a clear relationship between digital literacy and earnings. Considered across the UK as a whole, there is a 30% difference in digital competence between those earning up to about £10 000 a year and those taking home more than £75 000 a year. Of course, a correlation is not a cause and effect relationship; it could well be that those earning more can better afford the personal tech needed to work and play online. None the less, it makes intuitive sense that employers will regard basic digital skills as part of the generic competences required for more skilled, and better remunerated, jobs.

Fig  digital skills and income

Of particular interest, both in general and for the implications for education policies, is “digital exclusion” – the current manifestation of the longstanding concern with the digital divide. The digital heatmap – appropriately – is an interactive online tool that will help local authorities direct street-by-street interventions. Again not surprisingly, digital exclusion mirrors socioeconomic exclusion more generally, although there are still a lot of uncertainties in the data. Ellen Helsper again:

The Heatmap confirms strong links between social and digital inequalities in the UK and shows an island of inclusion around London and increasing levels of exclusion radiating out towards the North, West and East. Upon closer examination, the Heatmap also confronts us with the significant gaps in existing evidence relating to levels of basic digital skills and use and, therefore, highlights how our understanding of the social causes and consequences of digital inequalities may be limited. The data send a clear message: digital inclusion policy cannot stand on its own; it needs to be embedded within broader economic, social inclusion and well-being programmes and policy making.

But despite these reservations, one stark disparity shines out from the map for the UK as a whole: the difference between Scotland and Wales. These are wonderful, mountainous and often-wild landscapes: the joy of holidaymakers; the despair of digital technicians and providers of microwave towers. But despite their topographic similarities, Scotland persistently comes out well, matching Greater London for basic digital skills, and Wales consistently scores low, with the lowest levels of digital skills in the country.

Fig regional distribution of digital skills

Although, surprisingly, Go ON UK’s report has little to say about this, there is an evident correlation with Internet availability. Online access in Scotland matches availability in London; Wales has the worst access in the United Kingdom.

Fig comparison with internet access

The overriding message here seems clear; investment in digital infrastructure pays, and in all sorts of ways. For education, equitable access to digital infrastructure will be in the same order of importance as traditional, tangible, enabling resources; school buildings, libraries, playgrounds.


Ellen Helsper, “Measuring inequalities in a digital Britain”. LSE Media Policy Project Blog:

Digital Exclusion Heatmap:

Go ON UK: Basic Digital Skills. UK Report 2015:



Nothing is Different but Everything’s Changed

Paul Simon’s lyrics capture an enduring paradox of uncertain times:

Once upon a time there was an ocean. But now it’s a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion. Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.

 Universities in South Africa feel this way; Fanon and the whiff of teargas standing against staunchly neo-classical facades and retromingent ceremonies. And life must particularly feel this way for those in uneasy alliance at the University of Stellenbosch, whose proposals for language reform have been repudiated this week by their Council.

Here, and by fortunate coincidence, a powerful essay in a just-published collection points to the kind of more-considered approach that will be required if there is to be dialogue rather than stubborn confrontation over issues of institutional culture. Louise Vincent’s “Tell Us a New Story” welds together the significance of story-telling with an appreciation of the valency of our material world. In this, Vincent lays the intellectual basis for a practical and effective approach to mediating the complex requirements of transformation, for finding the “fragile and strange” that will mean that things are both different and changed:

Think about home again? I never think about home. But then comes a letter from home, the handwriting’s fragile and strange. Something unstoppable set into motion. Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.

Vincent thinks of institutional culture as like the giant mushroom in Oregon’s Blue Mountains, that covers the equivalent of 1665 football fields. This is a sufficiently alarming metaphor to prompt a bit of background research and yes, there is indeed such a phenomenon, Armillaria solidipes, claimed to be world’s largest living thing. The point is that, vast and all-pervasive as it is, this giant armillaria is only visible as small and nondescript outbreaks of fungus on the mountain’s surface: “when it comes to describing in concrete terms the mass and bulk of what we mean by institutional culture and its power on our lives we flounder, managing to point only to anecdotes and passing incidents.”

In addressing this – the limitations of anecdotes and the happenstance of conflictual outbreaks – Vincent turns to “new materialism”; theories about the ways in which the spoken and physical worlds are inseparable, part of a common package.

This has also been an active area of enquiry for archaeology in recent years, from work on the legacies of South America’s dictatorships to “landscapes of destruction” in North Africa and memories of violence in Europe. Appropriating Foucault’s classic metaphor of the “archaeology of knowledge”, this could be considered the “archaeology of transformation”.

Vincent insists that the discursive and the material must be considered together: “this idea is not about interaction, but about how our sense of being emerges in intra-action – in the spaces between bodies, chairs, floors, discourses and narratives that pervade an institutional setting”. Discourse is about stories, collectively garnered and shared to change consciousness, making the normal strange, challenging dominant voices and assumptions.   “Instead of taking for granted the world as we see it through our own eyes”, we rather need to “make room for the partialness of our own view, whoever we may be and wherever we may be situated – what might be referred to as making our own particular version of normal strange.”

Materiality is the recognition that material things have agency, in the daily constitution of identity and in the ways in which memory lives in the present and shapes the future. Universities are exemplars for this. Rhodes may have fallen at the University of Cape Town, but his absence is a minor dent in an archaeology of memory that shaped a whole mountainside. As with all material aspects of the places we inhabit, the multiple public and private spheres of daily communication are sutured with the tangible world:

The continued influences of the legacies of apartheid and colonialism are perhaps most concretely felt in built environments, architecture, urban planning, monuments and other physical artefacts, design and physical planning choices. Transformation of institutional ‘culture’ therefore cannot avoid an engagement with concrete material manifestations of cultural practices, identities and subjectivities.

These “material things” have agency over us. The question that Louise Vincent’s essay prompts is: how can theoretical structures like “new materialism” be used for practical purposes, in the kinds of leadership moves she calls for, in febrile contexts such as the escalating conflict about language at Stellenbosch?

Seen through the lens that Vincent offers, the Stellenbosch Council’s position on language is narrowly transactional:

Council states unequivocally that language may never be an obstacle for any student who has no command of either Afrikaans or English wishing to pursue undergraduate or postgraduate study at SU. Thus Council requests Management to expand the necessary mechanisms to this end, and to monitor these continuously. If this should imply that the English academic offering exceeds the set target, it will be supported by  Council.  Concurrently Council states that this may not be to the detriment of the agreed minimum target for the Afrikaans offering. Council requests that the Afrikaans undergraduate academic offering should also be increased. Council confirms that its multilingual academic offering is considered a strategic asset of SU that should be expanded as a competitive advantage.

But language is never “just language” and the widely-distributed video exposing conditions at Stellenbosch – Luister – is an exemplar for the insights from a new materialist perspective; the marginalization, humiliation and exhaustion from being subjected to the “necessary mechanisms” of simultaneous translation, of being always on the outside. And beyond this, of course, Afrikaans is a living and lived language, a medium for stories and for the constitution of memories. Afrikaans is saturated by history and joined with the materiality of architecture, monuments and landscape.

This inevitable materiality – Stellenbosch’s own giant mushroom – requires engagement. This, and its necessary complexity, had been the consensus reached by student activists, a significant number of staff, and the university leadership. In Louise Vincent’s words, we need “acts of leadership that consciously make available spaces for the telling of alternative stories and create a climate in which these stories can really be heard”. The Stellenbosch Council determination, in this context, that “necessary mechanisms” for translations should be continue and that teaching in Afrikaans should be expanded is, at best, naïve.

Once upon a time there was an ocean. But now it’s a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion. Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.

 I figure that once upon a time I was an ocean. But now I’m a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion. Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.


Louise Vincent: “’Tell us a new story’: a proposal for the transformatory potential of collective memory projects”. In Pedro Tabensky and Sally Matthews (editors). Being at Home. Race, Institutional Culture and Transformation at South African Higher Education Institutions. Pietermaritzburg, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2015.

Martin Hall: “Nothing is different but everything’s changed”. In The Next Twenty Five Years? Affirmative Action and Higher Education in the United States and South Africa. Edited by Martin Hall, Marvin Krislov and David L. Featherman. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2009.

Martin Hall: “Objects, Images and Texts: Archaeology and Violence”. Journal of Social Archaeology 16 (1), February 2016, in press.

Mpho Raborife: “Open Stellenbosch disappointed at council’s stance on language policy”. News24, 30 November 2015.