“Study the past if you would define the future”
History is debatable. As Mark Twain, amongst others, said “The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” It is open to interpretation. As Napoleon Bonaparte also said, “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.” It’s all too frequently written by the winners – those in power, those who have the means to relay their version of a series of events.
Yet, history is important. It defines us. It tells us where we came from. It’s relevant to our present and our past. What happened yesterday or in yesteryear has resonance with how we behave today, and could help to determine or guide our behaviour in the future.
Aldous Huxley said, “Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted. That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”
Today, on Radio Four’s “Start the Week” there was an interesting discussion about the teaching of history. Since the rewriting of the National Curriculum for England, there’s been immense debate about how history should be taught. The final version can be found in the links below.
When defending his choice of content for history in the National Curriculum Michael Gove has said that he believes in a need for chronology and was tired of children not understanding that the Romans came before World War One. He wanted facts. He liked the idea of reciting a series of dates and young people being able to know precisely what happened in 1492 or 1601 or 1836. However, his interpretation of historical study has been hotly debated by a range of eminent historians who disagree with many of his views and his seeming determination to create a very Anglo-biased version of history for our children to study.
An excellent summary of the debate can be found here, with references to a range of writing on the subject.
Changes have been made and some “concessions” given but this radio programme today reiterated some of the issues that were and still are prevalent in determining what and how history should be taught in schools today.
(It also raised a few eyebrows when listening to Michael Gove talk in such a passionate way about empathy. Gove said that “history should generate empathy”. But perhaps we ought to leave that particular statement for another time because there’s way too much to discuss in such a phrase – not least the notion that Mr Gove understands the value of empathy, considering his own lack of empathy regarding the teaching profession and the needs of children in the 21st century.)
Returning to the programme, there was a fundamental flaw in it from the very start. Where, dear Andrew Marr and the BBC, were the teachers? Where were the experts on child development who understand precisely why we need to engage children in learning by starting from their own experiences?
Where was the recognition that, in such a wonderfully diverse country as ours, those starting points for young children to engage in the learning of history are multifaceted and vary according to where a child lives in the country or from what background they originate?
Where were the eminent historians who disagreed with Gove’s interpretations and proposals for the curriculum? Where were the children? Where were their views? (The irony is that a subsequent “Woman’s Hour” programme had some eloquent young women talking about education – and their views within this debate would have been greatly appreciated.)
“Start the Week” reiterated the problem of placing the development of any National Curriculum subject solely in the hands of politicians and so-called experts by ignoring the need to have these other voices and perspectives represented too.
Admittedly, Margaret MacMillan said that engaging the interest of children was important but still she and the other guests – Simon Schama and Tom Holland – vehemently agreed with the Secretary of State about chronology being the most important issue. Of course it’s important to understand chronology but it’s a part of learning about history – not the be all and end all. The same can be said about facts.
Here’s an analogy. It’s like learning to read. Phonemes are a component of learning how to read, as are onsets and rimes, as are picture cues, as are graphemes. They all have a function and they are all used to a greater or lesser degree according to the needs and the choices of the individual.
Similarly, children will learn about and engage with history in different ways. Some children will get chronology by osmosis. Some children will engage in history because of facts and chronology but not all. Some children will become interested in history because of other factors – such as a link to a period of history that is prevalent in their locality, or a trip to a castle, or by seeing an old object hanging about in their grandparents’ houses. We all learn in different ways, and we all learn at different speeds too. Teachers should help to put sequence and order into learning history but that chronology shouldn’t be the absolute diktat. It’s part of the offering.
And now for facts.
Does the ability to order Henry VIII’s wives according to their demise make someone a better historian? Or is the person who “empathises” with the characters involved, and then uses that information to understand themselves and society today, the one that becomes the better history student?
Is it important to know precisely when Lady Godiva travelled through Coventry in defence of the poor – or is it more important to know that this event took place, and thus empowered other women to defend their rights and the rights of others against oppressors? (In point of fact, nobody knows the precise date or even decade that this event occurred!)
None of these issues, and their relevance to learning through studying history, were properly considered in the “debate” on Start the Week. The guests on this programme didn’t challenge the notion that memorising facts and dates somehow makes someone a great historian! They didn’t consider how a child and its mind develop. They paid little attention to context and how children often learn better when they can engage with their learning matter by linking themselves with it in one form or another. They did little to acknowledge the need for a more personalised approach to the teaching of history.
Furthermore, there was the gross hypocrisy coming out of Mr Gove’s mouth when he talked of democracy.
“Democracies have inherent advantages in times of conflict because they are more able to be creative”, he said.
Why do you think that is so, Mr Gove? Is it because true democracy requires discussion, debate, compromise, consideration of the opinions of others, and that in itself creates further thought, further ideas, further possibilities? The autocrat, the dictator, the fascist tells the people what to think and stymies the opportunity for creativity – an important tool in both conflict and in collegiality.
Any parallels being considered here?
The magnificence of ourselves is our uniqueness, with our own needs and desires to be creative – to be free to be creative. We are all individuals but we are also a collective. History helps us to understand ourselves and others from our own individual starting point. History is about debate, discussion, acknowledgement that perspectives vary and are open to interpretation. For example, we need our children to know that much of history is lost because the Socratic traditions favoured and used by many in society were lost to the power and dominance of the written word. Where are the accounts of living in Victorian slums, for instance, from the perspective of those who lived there rather than that of the reporter or the voyeur who walked past with notebook and an early camera in hand?
Will the reciting of facts capture these important historical issues – of who we are, of why our society is shaped in the way that it is, of how we can work towards a better society for all from what others have endured?
Of course, the real crux of the debate that was missing once more is what exactly are our fundamental aims for education in this country? What do we value? To what do we aspire? With the teaching of history, as with most subjects, this is what is important and what is all too frequently ignored.
Here’s an extract from the brilliant play by Alan Bennett – “The History Boys”.
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”
Empathy, Mr Gove – geddit?
Perhaps that old imperialist Rudyard Kipling got something right when he said “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”
We would all do well to consider the words of George Santayana when he said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
For the sake of our children and our children’s children, let’s learn from history. Let’s admit our mistakes and let’s stop letting people who don’t know what they’re talking about (or have a reactionary ideological agenda they wish to impose) dictate the way in which our children should learn.
Let’s be less obsessed with covering a predetermined curriculum and with relentless cramming for high-stakes tests and exams. Let’s ensure that our children enjoy history at school to the extent that they want to study it even when they are on their own with books and the Internet, and even if they choose not to opt for the GCSE course in history. Let’s enable them to develop an enjoyment of history for its own sake.