Tom Bennett

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White Rajahs and Dinosaurs: The Draft Proposals for the National Curriculum Part 1- History

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‘Just blow the bloody doors off the curriculum, Hooky!’


History has always been a battlefield. Few subjects pay allegiance so easily to their imagined relationship with ideology. Like Roulette, your chips are either on red or black-or in this analogy, blue. On one hand there are advocates of liberation history: society seen as a history of class struggle, increments of emancipation, rights, justice and social capital. On the other, the advocates of linearity, chronology, dead white Kings and empires. Frequently this is seen as winner takes all: every chip goes in. But this is a convenient, lazy perspective. The game permits other permutations.
Every leak is accompanied by a perfect storm of ire, thunderous navel gazing and the sound of swords being sharpened. Remove one Churchill, Seacole, Victoria- and prepare for the siege of Krishnapur as their devotees explain how their absence extinguishes understanding of Gallipoli, Crimea, ladys mourning fashions. Specify their inclusion, and wad your muskets for their defence. Everyone has their pet histories. How dare you omit Amritsar, or the Sepoy Mutiny? shouts one end of the stands, while the other screams for Rorke’s Drift and Admiral Beaufort.
A good deal of the non- teaching chatterazzi have focused on content, because it’s the easiest to grasp, and because it lends itself so readily to prejudice and expectation.
Victorian London in the 1890s
This debate has, like the event horizon of a black hole, swallowed everything and everyone. Curiously, the last thing that generated this kind of historical heat in the public imagination was Danny Boyle’s omnipopular frontispiece to the Olympics’ when 60 million Britons put down their Unhappy Meals and thought, ‘Hang on, maybe I won’t put my head in an oven today.’ I’ve heard some people, normally ones I would trust with keys and lighters, saying that ‘this is the kind of history we should be teaching children.’ What, the bit where the Queen jumped out of a plane with James Bond? The bit where Isambard Brunel forged the rings of Mordor? It was brilliant, of course, but to understand any part of it, first you have to understand to what it was alluding. Otherwise it’s just spectacle. Which for many, perhaps it was, punctuated with Voldemort and Mary Poppins.
Everyone wants children to understand history, but no one, it seems can agree what this means. Real understanding requires the knowledge of facts in context: knowing that, and knowing how it relates to other data. Facts without context are just that favourite of the anti-facts brigade: pub quiz fodder. But facts, coherently juxtaposed, transforms them from islands to archipelagos, to continents of comprehension. On such broad plains, everything else is possible: innovation, invention, intellectual revolution.
Some dead guy
Few things lens themselves as agreeably to this process as history. Until time decides to act otherwise, it flows from past to future on the crest of an unfathomable now, and in one direction only, unless you are a sub-atomic particle, which none of us are presently. To understand one moment, we must understand the moment that preceded it, in a succession of yesterdays that reaches backwards from the Playstation 4 to the Whitechapel Ripper, to the White Rajah of Sarawak, the Diet of Worms, dinosaurs and beyond.
Few would dispute this. The contention rests as much on what is included as what is omitted. Given that any history not personally lived must necessarily be condensed (and even such personal experiences are partial and fragmentary), which stories make the cut? What’s important?
Well, from the looks of it, we are. The decision to use the history of Britain as a launch pad to understand the world has received a battering, but where else should we start, standing as we are in Britain? As children our understanding is immersed in ‘I’. This egoism slowly melts into an appreciation of the second, then third person. We call this ‘growing up’. To understand the history of the world it is necessary to understand the history of your own hearth. First, where we came from; then, how we fit into other stories. In this way, an encyclopaedia of narratives are stitched together into a broader tapestry that itself reaches out, far beyond our grasp. It would be foolish to lay the first brick of a wall in mid air; bridges are built from your feet, outwards.
Part 2 to follow tomorrow, wherein Mr Bennett considers the matter of Romans, Vikings, Spacemen and Pirates
 

4 Comments

  1. pbgumby says:

    For me the proposals are beyond parody, hope, or despair.

    I just gawp in disbelief at the dismantling of every aspect of the education system and end up thinking the basic inhumanity of it all.

    Gove would make a very convincing Bond villain, but then I realise he’s in charge of education. The Dark Ages indeed.

    Anyway I’m glad the Royal Historical Society have issued a statement in restrained language. Here are the first and last parts:

    Statement on the Draft National Curriculum for History

    As representatives of the principal organizations for historians in the UK, we would like to respond to the publication of the draft Programmes of Study for History in the national curriculum released by the Department for Education on 7 February 2013.

    We want to voice significant reservations both about the content of the Programmes of Study which have been proposed, and about the process by which the Programmes have been devised.

    First, we believe that the Programmes of Study are far too narrowly and exclusively focused on British history to serve the needs of children growing up in the world today. History is of course an important and necessary tool for teaching future citizens about the making of their localities and nations. But it is not only that – it is also the treasure-house of human experience across millennia and around the world. Students should learn about British history: but knowledge of the history of other cultures (and not only as they have been encountered through their interactions with the British Isles) is as vital as knowledge of foreign languages to enable British citizens to understand the full variety and diversity of human life.

    The narrowness of the Programmes deprives children, many of whom will not continue with the study of History beyond the national curriculum, of the vast bulk of the precious inheritance of the past.

    […]

    The contrast with the practice of the Conservative government of the late 1980s when it drafted the first national curriculum is striking. Then, a History Working Group including teachers, educational experts and academics worked in tandem with the ministry of the day to produce first an interim report and than a final report in the midst of much public discussion. The curriculum that resulted was widely supported across many professional and political divisions in the teaching and academic professions and by the general public.

    The current government was certainly right to feel that after many interim changes it was time for a fresh look. Unfortunately, it has not attempted to assemble the same kind of consensus, and as a result it has produced a draft curriculum which it can be argued could still benefit from extensive discussion about how to ensure that it best serves both good practice and the public interest.

    Rather than find ourselves cast necessarily in the role of critics, we would welcome an opportunity to engage constructively with the government in fashioning Programmes of Study which could seek to deliver outcomes equally acceptable to politicians, working historians, the public at large and above all students, their teachers and parents.

    Professor David D’Avray, Chair, Medieval Studies Section, British Academy and others

    Full statement here

    http://www.royalhistoricalsociety.org/

  2. Interesting argument that the curriculum draft has stirred up both extremes, particularly the fact-fact-fact brigade. It would appear that few in the debate have a clearly defined idea of what “history” is. History is more than facts, or a series of facts. History is a study of the past. It is a supposition of what has happened, an account that can stand up to the scrutiny of evidence – that thing we extract from facts. We need students not only to understand what took place in the past, but how we got there – who are we to force feed a narrative as cast iron 'this is what happened.' Facts are the most basic building block of the past.
    It does of course feed into that meta-argument that students do not have a solid chronology of the past but that is too deep to get into for the moment. Too many dogmas float around there.

    Your final point Tom is a curious one. You defend an Anglo-centric curriculum, as would most of us I suspect. However is it not a misnomer to suggest first we must understand the 'I' before the second and third person. To understand the British island story we cannot ignore events overseas. A big part of our history has been forged by events that took place elsewhere & indeed what was perceived to be taking place elsewhere. One should not airbrush these out until we're older but weave them in – with moderation and appropriate scale – from the very beginning.

  3. gillibob says:

    I thoroughly agree, the key is to engage and discuss. Also it is about grabbing interest in the Curriculum as well as how much it is going to cost for new text books etc, just to resource a change!

  4. Gerald Haigh says:

    Two stories. Make what you want of them. First. In the early part of my teaching career I was in charge of history in a non-selective secondary school (OK a sec mod) with two history teachers. I wanted to change the CSE programme (remember CSE?) to one that studied selected short periods in depth. It was called the 'Patch' approach then. I believed it was better than a potentially misleadingly superficial look at a longer period. My colleague, incidentally a Marxist, was furious and wanted to cleave to the longitudinal approach, believing that children needed to see the unfolding story. Would I make the same decision now?
    The second story is that in 1999 the TES published, week by week, a centre spread in the magazine that built into a 16foot long full colour 'Millennium Frieze' for the classroom wall. I was one of the group that chose the contents, designed to highlight the most significant events of the millennium that was then coming to its close. Here's the article I wrote about the choices we made
    http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=315576
    Not sure whether the frieze is still available. It was a fine piece of design by some of the gifted folk who worked there then.
    And the points I'm making? Not at all sure. Once upon a time I was, like so many people still trying to build careers, bursting with the knowledge that I was right and most other people were wrong. Now I am only certain of a few essential values.
    Love to everyone.

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