Earlier this year I presented a talk at the fantastic Wellington Festival of Education. I have simply not had the chance to write it up thus far.
As the talk covered a range of different issues, I will be blogging about each aspect of it individually in a series. First up, I will be tackling the issue of the purpose of teaching history.
At its best, history enables us to know about and understand the past and make sense of our present world. This includes knowing that we don’t always have a complete picture of the past for a wide variety of reasons.
A recent conversation with a Marxist history teacher ended with him sarcastically vowing to be a liberal propagandist in future. Because all history teachers are propagandists, right?
This seems a fundamental confusion between the purpose of teaching history and the ways in which it has been used. Just because history has been used as propaganda does not give history teachers license to do it themselves.
Disappointingly, the Historical Association also seems unable to make this distinction between aims and uses. A recent email advertising one of its forums contained the following:
“We’ve all heard that common lament that history is about dead white ruling men; but what of the untold stories that make up the rich fabric of history? The stories that help us to see the past through the eyes of those that lived it? From stories of ordinary men and women to our wide global cultural heritage, it is our job as history educators to weave these stories into the fabric of the history that we teach.”
We may have heard the common lament, but it doesn’t mean that one has to swallow it wholesale as fact. The forum itself was devoid of any attempt to examine or analyse this proposition. Instead, the HA went full social justice warrior on the issue. When I emailed to question this and why the HA were accepting an identity politics agenda without question, I basically got a reiteration of the position stated above, which is just bandwagon jumping.
It’s not our job to weave anything into history; it’s our job to evaluate and analyse these accounts just as we would do any other. The characteristics of those who wrote them may or may not be of importance. There is nothing inherently problematic about the accounts of “dead white ruling men” and nothing inherently authentic about the accounts of those who don’t fit this category.
The Historical Association’s descent into identity politics is further evidenced by its promotion of the following website as part of its black history month coverage. I will go into the whole issue of BLM in a separate blog but what is interesting here are the aims of this organisation below.
1. We want young people to be able to construct accounts of the past they can be proud of.
2. We want history curricula in schools that are relevant to the multicultural Britain of the 21st century, which will include hidden histories of peoples of African descent.
3. We want history teachers to be resourced with research that reveals these hidden histories.
4. We want history lessons to be focused on rigorous historical enquiries that engage and challenge young people in historical thinking.
Of all the aims only number 3 is actually of any worth, in my opinion. Indeed, we need to ensure that teachers have access to as much material as possible to be effective history teachers. I disagree about hidden histories though. Hidden to whom? If by hidden they mean not studied then there is a role for scholarship here. If by hidden they mean not on the curriculum then a reality check is needed. We can not possibly teach all history on the curriculum.
Aim 2: Only total ignorance of the different iterations of the National Curriculum from 1988 onwards can lead to this conclusion. The study of multicultural Britain has been a staple unit in the history curriculum. If a left-wing profession (teachers and management), selected and trained by left-wing academics, all of whom pride themselves on their anti-racist credentials, have not been teaching it, then why is that?
Multicultural Britain is still 86% white, and whatever the ethnic make-up of the country is right now, it doesn’t change the fact that the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived in Britain have been white. I will explore the issue of content fully in another post, but in summary, political correctness, ignorance, abdication of responsibility and narcissism fuel many of the calls to make the history curriculum representative of the population. I have no intention of indulging it.
Aim 1 and 4 are completely at odds with one another. Constructing accounts of history one can be proud of necessitates cherry-picking facts, events and no small amount of deceit. How does one teach Idi Amin’s expulsion of African Asians so that both groups can be proud of their history? Do we erase this event from history and never mention it? Do we use the progressive stack to decide who is most oppressed (and therefore whose perspective is “authentic”)? Or do we use the ethnic minority “get out of being responsible for your actions because of *delete as appropriate (racism/oppression/colonialism) card” and blame the whites (preferably male) for everything?
I am grateful to my mother for reiterating the following idea repeatedly when I was growing up – there is good and bad in all people and all groups. It takes maturity to cope with the reality of this statement and no it won’t lead to you learning about history which makes you feel good about yourself or indeed simple accounts of goodies and baddies.
What others did in the past reflects on them and what you choose to do in the here and now reflects on you.
What concerns me more is that justifying the use of history to cure the ills of society, has lead to practices that are at best unhelpful to developing historians and historical scholarship, and at worst are downright unethical.
Teachers do not have a god given right to indulge themselves based on personal beliefs. This does not lead to the healthy debate and dialogue needed to further develop the subject. In fact, it doesn’t result in a debate at all as “correct” interpretations are doled out to pupils in the name of anti-racism without ever examining them in the detail required to develop historical thinking.
Also, basic requirements such as thinking about whether units are age-appropriate are thrown out of the window. One of the reasons why I began to question the teaching of history in schools was based on my experience of teaching young children. The teaching might have made some teachers feel radical, but it left ideas of racial differences and scientific racism reinforced and embedded rather than discussed or challenged. If you must indoctrinate then at least get the outcomes you want.
How can pupils debate and come to their conclusions if the history that is taught is deliberately leading to a particular conclusion? Units entitled “Why Should Britain be Ashamed of Colonialism?” are peddled as part of history schemes of work to primary schools. A cherry-picked view, supported by cherry-picked evidence to lead to a single conclusion is not teaching history. You don’t have to agree with the different interpretations to teach them but to dismiss them based on personal beliefs is wrong.
History at its best illuminates the past, it is our duty to do this as fully as we can for our pupils. Teaching versions of history to alleviate insecurities or promote ideological stances is nothing more than an exercise in the misuse of history. Teaching history in this manner is abdicating our responsibility as current historians to future historians.