Wednesday, July 21, 2004

The importance of history education

An outstanding article about the importance of history education by Professor David Nicholls of Manchester Metropolitan University is in the current issue of History Today. An abstract:

"The first, and most important, answer lies in history's place at the forefront of the humane disciplines. Studying history provides an insight into human behaviour in the face of the universal experiences that confront mankind. An understanding of past events thereby assists towards a better and more informed understanding of present events, and current affairs are more comprehensible if something is known of their origins. George Santayana expressed this elegantly in his famous dictum: 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.' History enables students to investigate diverse evidence and interpretations and formulate conclusions. It helps shape identities – local, national, global. It gives a sense of place and time. It makes a vital contribution to a liberal, democratic society like our own by providing students with an understanding of the values that underpin such a society: citizenship, rights and duties, a sense of community, an appreciation of diversity and tolerance. Yet, as things currently stand, our children are denied this source of democratic oxygen precisely when it is most needed.

Secondly, history deserves special consideration in any national curriculum because it encompasses a wide range of sub-disciplines and provides a coherent medium and structure for introducing students to them. The practice of history requires the mobilisation of knowledge from many cognate branches of the arts and humanities including literature, cultural studies, geography, philosophy, sociology, politics, economics, religious studies, education, languages and media studies. And, of course, all disciplines – sciences as well as humanities – have their own history, knowledge of which illuminates their study. History is also a useful training ground for IT applications – not just word-processing but spreadsheets, databases and the internet. The pedagogic value of history to any structured curriculum is potentially enormous – offering as it does both an organising framework for, and pathways into, so many related areas. As such, history is truly 'the Queen' of the disciplines. This is not to say, however, that a case based on special pleading is strategically the best way forward. The reduced role of history is symptomatic of the broader need for a review of the national curriculum as a whole and the place of all subjects in it. In the coming debate on the Tomlinson proposals, the difficult task for historians will be to make common cause with colleagues from other disciplines for a more integrated and inclusive post-14 curriculum, while at the same time affirming the particular strengths and opportunities that history, because of its multidisciplinary demands, affords for organising and shaping it.

Finally, a history education furnishes its students with many life-skills. It is important to stress this in order to counteract a common prejudice that holds history to be at best a pleasant pastime, at worst a waste of curricular space that could be better devoted to 'something more useful'. 'More useful' in this context usually means something that will lead to a good job. In our utilitarian society, the value of an education is frequently equated with the opportunities it provides for well-remunerated employment, and history is not generally perceived as providing such opportunities. This is a misconception that needs to be challenged. The history curriculum has been radically re-shaped in recent years. The language of learning outcomes; of subject and generic, personal and transferable, skills, capabilities and competences; of personal development plans and records of achievement was virtually unknown a generation ago. Now, it informs the prose of all government policy documents on education from the Dearing report on schools to the benchmark statement that established the norms for curricular content in universities, while the attainment of such outcomes and skills is used as a measure of the quality and standards of provision."

He also makes a revealing statement about how conservative politics has impacted the history curriculum:

"The Conservative New Right wished to place British political and constitutional history, which had been the staple of history teaching for much of the twentieth century, at its heart. However, the rise of social history in the universities from the 1960s onwards had led to an interest in far less comfortable, much more contentious topics such as class and class conflict, feminism and multiculturalism, and to a greater emphasis on concepts and interpretations. These new developments had percolated to the schools and their influence could be seen in the Schools History Project and in the GCSE when it was introduced in 1986. The working group set up to advise Baker on the curriculum was instructed to restore British political history to its traditional place. However, it proved less than compliant, interpreting its remit very broadly. When it published its recommendations, topics like multi-culturalism were still present together with endorsement for the desirability of teaching different historical interpretations.

The state had let the genie out of the bottle and now hastily tried to summon it back. The prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, demanded that the report of the working group go out to further consultation, which resulted in a still greater focus on British history. The new Education Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, placed restrictions on the teaching of contemporary history on the grounds that it was not the job of history to teach 'current affairs'. His successor, John McGregor, announced in 1990 that history and geography would be optional at Key Stage 4. Geography, requiring fewer extended pieces of coursework, was perceived as less difficult and more pupils therefore chose it. As a result, Baker’s intended core role for history in the 14-16 national curriculum was shelved and, even at the peak of the popularity of GCSE history in the mid-nineties, only a little over one-third of Year 11 pupils was being entered for it.

The Labour government, when it came into office in 1997, continued in similar vein. In a speech made shortly before he became prime minister, Tony Blair had said: 'I think it is vitally important to study history. If we are going to lead Britain safely into the future, it is essential that we understand our country’s historical roots. If we can learn the lessons of the past, we will be able to avoid making mistakes in the future.’ Any expectations raised by this speech were quickly to be dashed. Such sentiment did not prevent his government pressing ahead with the implementation of the Dearing recommendations or with introducing the other damaging changes described earlier. Perhaps Labour’s unsympathetic attitude towards history was influenced by its determination to demonstrate its 'newness'. Integral to the image of New Labour created by its propagandists and spin-merchants was the need to break with the past, to discard old ideological baggage, to eradicate memories of 'Old Labour' and its electoral failures, internecine battles and association with trade union strikes and disruption.

A tension between professional and political control has therefore been at the root of the reduction of history's place in the curriculum. The arguments for its centrality to a humane education are, at one and the same time, the very reasons why the state would like to control what is taught and why historians are resistant to such interference. The government has sought to wrest control by exercising as much influence as possible over what remains of the shrinking history curriculum and by locating the teaching of humane values elsewhere. This has meant, on the one hand, yet more British history, on the other, classes in 'citizenship'. Curriculum 2000 specified 25% of GCSE to be devoted to British history and for a 'substantial element' at 'A' level; all this on top of a curriculum already heavily weighted to British history at Key Stages 1-3, raising issues of balance and progression. Curriculum 2000 also made citizenship a statutory part of a child's education, the content prescribed by the government. This is a more 'managed' way of delivering the message of rights, duties, and national identity than leaving it within the history syllabus where more subtle readings and potential contradictions might arise - for example, between 'Britishness' on the one hand and devolution and multi-culturalism on the other. A curriculum that prioritises 'Britishness' and 'citizenship' is far more conducive to the stability of the state than one that celebrates regional differences and ethnic and cultural diversity. Historians have the knowledge and experience to contribute to the teaching of citizenship, and understandably see it as a replacement for the work they have lost, but in itself it is no adequate substitute for a properly articulated, professionally determined history curriculum."

Although this article describes the influences on the British history curriculum, such influences have obviously taken a toll on the U.S. History curriculum as well. Although "Western Civilization" is still considered a core course for a liberal arts education in higher education, K-12 history exposure is primarily focused on U.S. history with a similar emphasis on the development of good citizenship, or should I say, "compliant" citizenship. In an increasingly globalized society, this promotion of fractious national centrism can only be detrimental to the long term ability of our peoples to understand each other, cooperate and collaborate on critical issues that will face our world in the years ahead.