The way we are educated about our past is always a contentious issue, never more so than over the past year. Our shared past shapes our views and behaviour, which makes it vital that we understand it.
Yet both sides of the political divide feel that ideology influences the issues which are covered in school syllabuses. Many older people feel that students should be educated about the British Empire, while most younger people believe that an emphasis should be placed on the legacy of slavery, particularly in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The discord among educational elites makes it difficult to enact lasting reform. Therefore, it is increasingly important for people to take the initiative and educate themselves about history. Difficult subjects need to be discussed, even if the classroom neglects to cover them. This is just one reason for the immense popularity of Netflix’s The Crown.
The show details British political and social history in the postwar era, including key events such as the Suez Crisis, the Aberfan Disaster and the Falklands War. While it is a dramatisation, the show offers people a useful way of learning about past events in a more engaging way than by reading endless books. So far, 29 million people have viewed the fourth season of The Crown since it became available on the 15th November.
Although there have been complaints over the portrayal of several characters and events, it is refreshing to see so many people taking an interest in history. While a fictional show is always going to push certain agendas and use dramatic licence, it also raises important issues.
For example, in the fourth season an episode is allocated to living conditions in the early years of Thatcher’s Britain, with high unemployment and inflation. The show even devotes time to discussing constitutional issues such as the balance of power between the monarchy and elected politicians.
Of course, the perspective of historical events given in the show should not be taken as gospel, but neither can the narrative in any book. The Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, has argued that each episode should begin with a disclaimer that it is fiction rather than fact.
However, viewers of The Crown may be inclined to research events in the show further in order to educate themselves. This is the key point: popular dramas make up for their historical inaccuracies by raising issues for a generation of people who would otherwise have no engagement with the subject.
The Crown has been criticised for glossing over the British Empire, as well as for a so-called ‘hatchet job’ on the breakdown of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s marriage. Yet the conversations it creates certainly benefit the collective education. Searches for Princess Diana increased by over 5000% in the week season four was released, which proves that watching dramatisations encourages people to conduct further research.
It is unrealistic to demand that any sort of education – be it formal or otherwise – is ideologically neutral. Much like the monarch’s political duties, TV can make suggestions about how to interpret issues, but viewers must come to their own conclusions. But it can only be a good thing that so many more people are talking about our past as a result.