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What is History Education For?

Notes made by Harley Richardson, Oct 2011

These are my sketchy personal notes of debates at the Battle of Ideas 2011, which I attended in a personal capacity. I thought they might be of interest to folks who weren't able to attend. They're not comprehensive I'm a fast typer but some of the speakers were faster talkers - and any quotes I give are from memory and may not be 100% accurate. I tried to capture the main points I thought each speaker was making, but if you're one of those speakers and you feel I've misrepresented you, please let me know. I've flagged up the names of questioners from the audience where I know them.

From School history appears to be in crisis. In 2010, more than a hundred state secondary schools entered no students for GCSE history. Internationally renowned historian Niall Ferguson, now advising the government, laments the fact that design and technology is more popular. Students in maintained schools are barely half as likely as those in independent schools to study GCSE history. Many state schools allow some pupils to stop studying history at 13, and 30% of comprehensives spend less than an hour a week on history in the years up to that age. And history is often taught as part of humanities or general studies by teachers with no training in the subject. Hopes have been raised by education secretary Michael Goves personal enthusiasm for the subject. Gove is keen to undo New Labours legacy: he suggests they favoured unhelpful historical themes and skills over content. This is controversial, however. Gove insists students are entitled to learn the inspiring history of the United Kingdom. Critics contend this will mean history is replaced with thinly-veiled national myth-making, typified by the 1905 childrens book Our Island Story, recently re-released to gushing praise by conservatives. Will history lessons now comprise stories about famous dead Englishmen, Kingsn Queens, Alfred and the cakes and Drake and the Armada? The coalition protests that New Labour used the national curriculum as a vehicle for imposing political fads on our children, but is it guilty of a similar crime? Narrative history tsar Simon Schama has rejected claims such a curriculum would be the uncritical genealogy of the Wonderfulness of Us. But when he writes that history is the greatest, least sentimental, least politically correct tutor of tolerance, and insists it can help overcome social and cultural divisions, maybe he too can be accused of politicising the subject? Michael Gove wants to reduce unnecessary prescription, but is this compatible with a focus on essential knowledge that all children should acquire? Historian Richard J Evans argues the disciplines strength rests on puncturing myths, demolishing orthodoxies and exposing politically motivated narratives. So should children be taught to be little historians, analysing historical sources and picking apart their text books rather than swallowing them whole? Or is this to confuse history as an academic discipline with the particular role of school history? Some argue even a one-sided narrative involving solid facts is better than none, since historical knowledge depends on a sense of coherence and chronology. Is it fanciful to imagine you can teach critical thinking without a basic historical grounding? Or will a return to narrative in the classroom just mean the mindless regurgitation of boring facts? Can school history be expected to overcome the broader division of opinion over what history means? How might history be made an attractive and enlightening subject for study in schools?

Chair: Toby Marshall, A level teacher of Film Studies and Philosophy Simon Jenkins, guardian journalist and author, chairman of national trust, author of A Short History of England, says most people now teach history as a series of events, so he wanted to see how they linked up Dr Sean Lang, senior history lecturer, director Better History Forum; Gary McCulloch, author, The Struggle for the History of Education

Dr Mark Taylor, history teacher; London Convenor, IOI Education Forum. Argues that history is 'about the difficult life of the mind'.

Intro (Toby Marshall)

Title question especially pertinent due to Ofsted report on History for All. Only country (in Europe?) where can stop taking history at 13. Some think too much time spent on it at primary, too little at secondary. Emphasis given to historical skills as opposed to narrative has undermined value and appeal What does history education uniquely contibute to a child's education? What can't they get from other subjects? What is wrong, what is right about history teaching? Is the politicisation of history education a problem or a solution?

Simon Jenkins
Not a historian. Kept bumping into historical events during his work as a journalist could picture them due to TV shows but didn't understand what they meant ie how they linked up. Historical cause and effect. Wrote a book looking at what was the cause of which England was an effect? 'Madame Tussauds' history a series of characters on a stage, all on the same stage. Realised the essential history of England is its politics all other histories (social, wars, etc) are clothes on the frame. We had a civil war why was there then a restoration? Tried to start at the beginning and end at the end. Every paragraph in his book has a date, and each date is usually after the preceding one. Wrote as a journalist the reader shouldn't fall asleep. Can't start at the middle, got to start at the beginning with the arrival of the Anglo Saxons. How did England briefly become one of most powerful nations in the world? Can't answer that with isolated facts.

Dr Sean Lang
People say history education is for developing identity or developing historical skills. It's for extending historical knowledge, because historical knowledge matters. Shouldn't be necessary to stress this but it is disputed. History is about making connections. Cannot have analysis without broad knowledge. Work of historian is a wide-ranging one, without a wide range you can't operate. In schools, children are being denied that range. The idea of knowledge has become political. If you think students should know a lot, you get accused of being right wing. Would be a surprise to left wing thinkers of the past.

Two schools of thought about history teaching: 1) It's fine, just needs tweaking or problems are external eg timetabling pressure. Leave it alone. Current curriculum ok, leaves teachers a lot of flexible. Put forward by Ofsted in History for All. The emphasis is on transferable skills not knowledge. View of some teachers is that better to know that all evidence is biased than knowing the date of Battle of Hastings. 2) (SL's view) Concerns about too much flexibility. Children accepting anything if it's on a computer. Universities concerned about lack of knowledge of new pupils. Exam boards require measurably less knowledge at A Level. Steady reduction in the amount of content. And tends to be a little bit of this, a little bit of that the Yo Sushi approach to the curriculum. Over 2/3 students drop it at first opportunity. Hate source exercises. Not stretched hard work because a lot to do, but not intellectually stimulating. What should we do? There is a role for government our only voice. It's our history. Can only create your own narrative if you know a lot of history.

Gary McCulloch
Loves history, thinks it matters, in an age when many don't. Pleased that the coalition government is so interested in history, gives some opportunities. Very concerned about number of pupils not studying history to age 16. Worrying: early signs are that Academies may not support it. Not sure about Free Schools can anything be done if they ignore it? Needs to be more professional development, particularly at Primary level. Would include Scotland, Wales and Ireland as well as England. Many different groups have contributed to our history in different ways. History is for girls as well as for boys. It has to confront our past, including our imperial past and to treat it critically. Not sure whether there's a crisis lots of good thinks about school history. Not heading for extinction. Oftsted reports show a lot of good things happening. Very passionate debate about this held in other countries; ours is relatively mild and good-tempered. Should be sceptical about thinking about good days. Ironic that history discussions are so nostalgic. Currently history teaching is back to the 1950s, talking about imaginative experience.

Mark Taylor
Not clear anymore what history teaching is for. We have to be aware that we're in a historical time period where this is the case. Thucydides? writer of History of Peloponnesian War wrote because the poets couldn't do it. The poetry passed down no longer provided an explanation for the world they were in. People drop in historical references all the time (including at these debates). Shows what it's for. What do you then do with it? History has got to connect to the present. Need to universalise not personalise... from that you then form your own personal stake in history. Constantly apologising to students for the stuff he hasn't been able to cover.

We now think it's narrative vs skills. A static way of understanding about the life of the mind. You live in the present, but it becomes more alive to you if you have a deeper understanding of history. We really don't know what history is education for right now. Tendancy at the moment to say 'imagine...' - dress up as Henry VIII, imagine you're a sperm, etc But problem with imagining the past is that you're not thinking for yourself... you've got to work out through the ideas that history provokes about what it means to be human or not human. (This doesn't get taught: GCSE history starts from 1945). How can history education have a stake in helping us with that?

TM: (To MT) are you saying that people aren't forced to get historical knowledge? MT: Concept of history was foreign to him, because he had studied it. SJ: Science taught as if all pupils are going to be lab assistants. Most teachers want to train people to be like them. Brian Cox (inspiring) v teaching (v dull) History becomes enthralling once you've seen the links. History turns out responsible citizens. Can't be a banker, lawyer et without understanding the history of their profession. No point in dipping children into pools of the past. Meaningless unless can be linked. We could do a 'Brian Cox' on history. SL: Understanding of last century very shallow. Blair [?] said 'never a time when knowledge of the past was less relevant' before going into Afganistan for 3rd time. Knowledge as a whole regarded as QI stuff for pub quizzes, but of no importance. Human need to know where you come from. (Who Do You Think You Are?) Audience member: If you don't teach good history, people work off bad history. Likes the idea of a straightforward narrative, it's the skeleton to hang things on. Audience member: Can't function in a modern democractic society without knowledge of how you got there. Otherwise, condemned to live in an eternal present, the discoveries of the past denied to us. Teaches English, ended up teaching English and History because can't understand the literature without knowing this historical context. Appalled at level of knowledge of bright children coming to his school, who don't what what centuries are. Audience member: History teaching too skewed by political interests. Audience member: Hooked on history as a child not by teachers (who were either good and bad) but by great children's historical fiction. What's the role of empathy with history teaching?

Audience member: History GCSE curriculum very boring, but wasn't turned off once you're in, you're in. MT: 'More good history, less bad' rhetoric. Presumes should be taught chronology, universal objective history. But it's about the student being able to judge objectively what is good or bad history. Shouldn't just be creating people who can pass exams. An exam doesn't ask children to write a proper essay and show the development of history. SL: SL's proposals were picked up by Islamic speaker on Radio 4 Thought for the Day. Was surprised to find that the speaker's school was teaching very traditional English history. Why? Students asked for it, needed to understand british society. Mainstream schools had failed them. SJ: History should be dangerous. Makes people questioning citizens. That's why in 1984 it was banned, and why it is handed down in official form by other countries. The most important subject in the curriculum. History teachers not fighting enough for their subject. Riddled with politically correct concepts eg got to write history of Ireland, Wales and Scotland. (When he was a child it was the Empire). UK was the first empire. Britain now the politically correct entity to be taught. Can't challenge things if you're politically correct. GM: Extremely dangerous when history hitched to one's own national culture. Policy makers start to draw from own personal family hstories. Successive Ministers of Education keep doing it. Sceptical about history leading to social change. Shirley Lawes, IOI Education Forum: Who Do You Think You Are? is an entertaining show, doesn't tell you much about history, just a personal history. Trains language teachers, thinks they have a lot in common with history teachers in terms of reasons for supporting subjects. Reduction of skills broader problem of what education is for. Instrumental view of knowledge and education. Dangerous experiment content and language integrated learning. History learned through a foreign language. Utter degredation and betrayal of subject education. Kathryn Ecclestone: WDYTA more a form of popular psychology, not a springboard for the useful sorts of history. Shocking lack of knowledge in her social science undergraduates. Know little about anything. Privately educated women will do history and literature, others won't. Her child loves history but has no idea about what it is. What advice do you give someone without damaging their self-esteem? Audience member: Teaching reduced to form over content. Pinter: literature allows you to explore truths that other things don't allow you to do. History does too. Education system no longer about exploring truth of humanity. It's about getting a GCSE. Why? To get a GCSE. Audience member: Students learning for exam, not learning what they want to. History and Geography should be more tightly linked.

Audience member: (A level history student): There isn't just one narrative in history. Every narrative is a construct. Where do you start? Glad she knows so much about the Holocaust. SJ: Got to teach something by starting at the beginning. History is temporal, it's not Geography. If you don't have the framework, everthing else dissolves. The Holocaust is a fixation. (Covered in 3 programmes in a row on TV last night). Bringing up a generation to believe that Germans are monsters. MT: No greater subject than the Holocaust, the point is to do it right. Tends to be taught D-Day side when most of it took place in East Europe. Don't link history with other subjects. Lack of historical content in every subject, including history. Every subject has a history which has been forgotten and it has been dumped back onto History. Not everyone has to be a responsible citizen: if you're a racist that's between yourself and your conscience. Should be training people to think for themselves, not to think the right thing. Current government saying need more narrative, previous said need more self-esteem etc. No agreement about what the narrative is. Eg the remembrance poppy became an issue last year in China where it's a symbol of the opium trade. Follow your interests but also challenge your interests. Very wary of training historians. Wants well-educated children who can think for themselves. There's plenty of well-educated people who are horrible selfish gits. We are the political citizens who have accepted the curriculum... can't blame it on others. Response to government is very half-hearted, because people aren't sure what they want. SL: Only mentioned WDYTYA in terms of people's interest in the past. Illustrates how history can become relevant to anyone, sometimes unexpectedly. Gobbet approach to teaching history is very well entrenched. KS3 three year of programme of study from ancient world to Holocast misses out anglo saxons, vikings, church's role in middle ages, does Cromwell twice, misses out 18th C except slave trade, missed out Victorians except Jack the Ripper. Encourage children to read widely and fill their minds with as much knowledge as possible. From your knowledge you construct narratives, and can construct different narratives from the same material. Audience member: How well is history taught on television? Audience member: Learnt most about history of Scotland through reading Lauren Macaulay's History of England. History books of the past had many editions and readers there were good old days. Audience member: Bad history without framework you can't challenge facts. Audience member: Any value in being taught another subject? Audience member: Just get people hooked. Good historical novels will do this. Make a timechart, will stick with you through your life. Talk to living witnesses (historians prefer paper documents). Stalin and Cold War

more relevant now than Holocaust and there's plenty of people around who lived through it. Audience member: This discussion is not a debate, everyone involved loves history. Discussion arises from the fact that, under New Labour, History made not compulsory. Need views of those who don't think history is important. Audience member: History is a sequence of the most important things that have happened to our nation. History teachers don't worry about the government, just teach it. Audience member (student): Liked History, hated Geography. We don't have enought time to study everything. Have to specialise. Now has the skills to research history further. Why not just give skills to those who are going to take it further? Audience member (Head of Maths): Previous Labour politician said education was mainly to provide skills for commerce may explain hostility to History and other subjects. Enthusiasm of teacher is what inspires, not curriculum. Audience member: How to inspire her child? History should be more flexible and open-ended; depends on the problems we're trying to solve at the moment Audience member: Big problem with 'my great nation' approach. Doesn't prepare children to cover cultural context. Audience member: Line between skills and knowledge. Would be more useful to be taught as a skill. SJ: It was Kenneth Baker not New Labour who introduced National Curriculum. SJ talked to him... learned that Literacy and Maths lobbies 'got at them'... no time left for anything else. So it is the Government's fault. Crazy to have lessons. Should have a week teaching the whole of history... at the end of it everyone would know. Won't know history learning it one day a week. Horrible Histories, TV documentaries all good for getting people hooked. SL: The hook is the story. Skills should not be the basis, that's a betrayal. Without knowledge there is no skill. Can't evaluate things. Knowledge liberates. GM: Simon Sharma, etc great. Need to understand different approaches why some approaches are weak. History is a mansion with many kinds of rooms. Children need to explore the different types of history out there. MT: Why no people at the debate arguing against History? Because it's an assumption, rarely explictly argued. Assumptions driving much of education policy. So we need to argue more. Not sure that he really loves History, but it's a vital subject. History does repeat itself. If you just taught the past, Plato's Republic would never have been written... breaking away from ways of understanding the past. Historians quickly become ideologues, saying you must learn this history... just as dangerous. Socrates created the state in his head. (Came out of the history of politics going wrong at that time.) What's our view now about what to do? Don't load it all on history teachers... they can't solve everything.