Curriculum Wars


I suppose it’s nice to see History in the news.

As purveyors of stuff that happened centuries ago we don’t really expect to spend much time in the media’s glare. But since Michael Gove’s new History curriculum, with its emphasis on chronology and factual ‘content’, was made public at Christmas, historians have been everywhere, and everyone has an opinion. The reforms will rescue historical knowledge; they will restore pride in our nation; they will take us back to ‘kings and battles’; they will write out women from the past; they will make us understand democracy better; they will make us more racist.

And as if things hadn’t become silly enough, a couple of weeks ago, even the Mr Men were drafted in, when Mr Gove seized, gleefully on an exercise in which children were asked to consider – if Hitler were a Mr Men character, what would he be?

The crux of the matter has come down to two very separate issues, and views upon these have been bitterly contested. The point of the Mr Men exercise was, of course, to get children to think creatively about the past: unless you go for ‘Mr Nazi’ it’s actually pretty hard to decide what Mr Men character Hitler was – the debate that then ensues, theoretically then teaches far more about History than does any list of facts.

The first issue, then, is one of creative thinking about the past vs. learning facts. Broadly speaking, the traditionalist, ‘Govean’ position is that there should be more factual content in the curriculum; the progressive position is that the emphasis should be on critical thinking and creativity.

As it happens, the idea that there has been a decline in historical knowledge has been a media trope for years: most people don’t know, for example, who fought at Waterloo; some unknown percentage of children think Churchill is a dog (which in fairness he is, or – to be more precise – there is a fairly well-known dog called Churchill); the majority of people have no idea who Henry Bolingbroke, Henry 2nd Duke of Lancaster, and King Henry IV were. And so on…

And a decline in historical knowledge, if real, is regrettable – though it’s amazing how many of these questionnaires are framed in terms of those kings and their battles. It is often said that in order to debate History, in order to think creatively about it, you need to know stuff, and this is very hard to dispute. One certainly wouldn’t want to be accused of arguing from a lack of evidence now, would we?

Whether the need to have some ‘content’ in the history curriculum means we need to treat it chronologically, though, is another matter. A former colleague of mine use to say to students that the one thing we can be certain of in History is that things move forward in time. It’s a throwaway point, but it’s hard to argue with the idea that, if you want to know why the Glorious Revolution happened, you look to the Restoration, not to the Great Reform Act.

But the chronological approach is not the only way to look at History. In fact, it’s a method which presupposes a broadly political narrative; and here’s where my problem lies. For political historians (give or take a Namier or two), it makes perfect sense to tackle things chronologically; for social historians, things are a bit more complex. Yes, we tend to look for historical change, and yes we see chronology as important. But we are also interested in how societies worked, how they functioned, what it was like to live at a specific time, what cultural assumptions people had, and why. These are not questions that need to be tackled chronologically.

They also require empathy. Now, empathy has emerged as a bit of a dirty word amongst the traditionalists. They wail at school exercises where, instead of learning some dates, children are asked to imagine what it would have been like to be, for example, a medieval peasant. They say that the empathy exercise is easier. Perhaps many traditionalists do find it easy to imagine being an illiterate medieval peasant, but I’m quite sure that for modern children, with their smartphones and the internet, imagining a life of agricultural toil and no TV is quite a challenge.

Not in the new History curriculum, sadly.
A Parliament of Women? Not in the new History curriculum, sadly.

Even the argument that historical knowledge prepares people better for modern citizenship doesn’t really work. Sure, it’s quite fun to know all the Kings and Queens of England, but anyone with half a brain can find that out from Wikipedia these days. Far more useful in the modern world to have people who can understand and empathise with cultures far different from their own. Historical empathy, and social history, teaches us to see the cultures on their own terms, be they in the past or the present. Historical creativity teaches us to use evidence-based thinking to come to decisions, not to accept received wisdom, and to come up with new ideas for old problems. Just last week, Boris Johnson was pointing out that Britain had not produced a Google or a Facebook (because London buses have doors, apparently), and calling for more risk-taking. Do we really think that forcing our children to learn the dates of the English kings is the best way History can work to this end?

And so we get to my second issue, which is about what History teaching is for rather than how to do it.

One of the bitterest, and perhaps most unfair, charges against the new curriculum has been that it is jingoistic, xenophobic, even racist; not to mention that it largely writes out women from history. There was an unseemly tangle over the totemic, if historically fairly odd, figure of Mary Seacole. The question, really, is whether history in schools should be used as a force for social change, and for engendering social values, be they national pride, or cultural tolerance, or perhaps even – if you’re Danny Boyle – both at the same time.

From my perspective, as a practising historian and as a university lecturer, the answer to this question is a resounding no. History is about the scientific understanding of how humans lived in the past, and why they made the decisions they did. It has no didactic purpose, it simply explains. Morality can be safely left to the philosophers. That doesn’t mean we can’t be appalled by the slave trade or the Holocaust, it just means that we have to face up to our revulsion and try to work out why they both happened. Unfortunately this means trying to understand why people supported Hitler, which is not fun.

But this is the view from the ivory tower, where we have the luxury of thinking (relatively) freely. The view from the classroom is a different one. Put simply, it matters what young people learn about their past. It would be utterly regrettable if children whose ancestors have lived in England for centuries grew up thinking that they were mere colonizing, slave-trading baddies: a nation of villains straight out of Mel Gibson’s movies. Similarly, though, it would be equally regrettable if black or Asian children grew up learning just about how wonderful the English constitution was, without any conception of the glories of Islamic art (Taj Mahal, anyone?), or of medieval Chinese science, or of the ancient Egyptians.

And of course, there are virtually no women mentioned in the new curriculum. Its apologists will argue that this reflects the lack of female presence in English political history. But as much as this is the case, it’s the political history that should go, not the women.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Julie Elizabeth Smalley says:

    Perhaps then your very first, sub-titular word has just said it all. “Adventures”. There. Already it sounds more than appealing.
    If these were to be made the stuff of social history curricula, what intriguing possibilities await. Doesn’t have to be in chronological order (definitely not necessary), can certainly be wide-ranging across societies and people, and positively begs creative empathy. Such episodes are not always monumental. Or positive. Daily survival would qualify. It is as valid a way as any to try and understand what has propelled us forward (or not) through an ongoing present – history of course always happens in the present tense. More importantly, the impetus of sheer curiosity might just be the spark for kids to go and consume whatever extra fact and content is desired. Both your issues accommodated.
    Really, there is just so much history for all of us to digest, it has to be filtered somehow. Maybe those “adventures/misadventures” are not such a bad way to start?

    1. Thanks Julie! Historical research is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a big adventure. It’s all about exploration!

  2. Elizabeth A. Johnson says:

    To teach young people, one needs to “start with heart.” If the curriculum and the teacher don’t engage them, then they may ‘learn’ history, but they will not understand what they have learned.

    1. I agree entirely. Boring children to tears is hardly going to convey a love of the subject and of learning.

  3. Tom Webster says:

    A couple of points from a similar position. The first is about critical engagement or, put in less intimidating terms, learning to ask why a particular understanding is being encouraged – who says so and why – which is definitely a skill that can be applied to watching/listening to the news every day. That sprang to mind with a couple of the examples used. I lecture on a first year survey course and one of the most pleasurable ones is ‘Was the a “Glorious Revolution”?’ which obviously gives a version of the ‘facts’ and narrative but goes on to make them think about what ‘earned’ it the adjective and so for whom was it glorious. Similarly with the ‘Great Reform Act’ as doing tutorials on 1832 are a major exercise in undoing whiggish assumptions. The second thing is the supposed absence of women from political history. That is only the case with very narrowly defined political history. Women did not need suffrage (or to be campaigning for suffrage) to become politically engaged. Teaching on the 1640s and 1650s without including women would be appalling (as is partly shown by the cover used above), not least with the early Quakers and a very gendered understanding of ‘the world turned upside down.’ The last thing is the question of ‘purpose’ in addition to helping the development of critical engagement. For me, one of the benefits of studying history and of teaching it is to help people realise that things, attitudes, cultures, political and economic systems have been very different in different times and places which opens the perception that they can be different again, thereby at least making a small contribution at least against the default position of political cynicism and apathy that is a bad ingredient if one aspires to live in a fully functional democracy.

    1. Thanks Tom – I do like your last point. I’m very sceptical generally about giving any kind of political spin on History, though I accept that this is unavoidable in many cases. Showing children that ‘things can change’ and that people can change them does, however, seem like a very worthwhile thing to do. I take your point about political history, too. There are plenty of examples of women being involved in the political process more generally, and in government. Even so, it would be hard to argue that the major political figures in the past have been equally divided between sexes. I’d certainly be an advocate of the kind of ‘deep politics’ you refer to. Perhaps we can teach political history, but in the wider sense that you are referring to.

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