History as vessel

20070905-164910This is a brief thought in response to this morning’s Start the Week, which tackled the familiar topic of the teaching of History in our schools. As this topic has been covered ad nauseam in broadcast media, always with the cry ‘why no school teachers?’ I expected there to be some school teachers. You also might have expected a radical voice, for example, advocating diaspora histories. But no, to both expectations. The panellists were Michael Gove, Simon Schama, Tom Holland and Margaret McMillan.

I’ve written before here about the new National Curriculum, Gove’s lack of consultation and the relationship between History and an environmental context for education. I argued that Geography is an essential grounding for learning in History. In fact, I’d argue that History should be part of Geography – the part that looks specifically at human interactions with the geophysical world, how human groups have interacted with each other, and how power relationships have agency in this system. In saying this, I don’t mean it should be demoted or less time given to it. I also argued that a curriculum should be a deliberatively constructed statement about what constitutes an optimum education: What are the best resources, relationships, enquiries and assessment systems to enable the development of the most needed capacities? In short, children are not vessels to be filled but possible people to be nurtured.

Anyway, this thought is about why History education is such a hot media topic, whereas no other discipline comes close in its coverage outside of education media. The public discourses about History education, compared to all other disciplines, are riddled with logical fallacies. You hear that in History it is acceptable because effective to deliver narratives as if they are truths. (For example, Gove said children needed to learn who came first, the Greeks or Romans etc as if one did actually succeed another. Tom Holland said younger children needed to hear the story of King Alfred’s cakes and then later in secondary school could unpick such myths). You hear an assumption that historical knowledge is always best passed on through story, rather than through practical and imaginative investigations of places, sources and traditions. You hear that this storytelling is best delivered from a figure of authority, that is, the teacher – who is not seen to be a history expert but has perhaps had the authority handed down to them by an historian. (Although this idea of sources for learning is limited to ‘the teacher’, rather than a community of enquiry and a collection of stimuli, you never hear from the education professionals themselves. Gove referred to History teachers as ‘the infantry’.) You hear an assumption that when History knowledge is transmitted, it will be miraculously kept, and that if they don’t regurgitate the facts as taught that they haven’t been taught.

History is seen as the ultimate vehicle for the transmission of inheritance. In a globalised world, and especially in a country with such complex nationalities, and with an exceptionally hubristic and impactful history, the nature of our inheritance is very fraught. So History is expected to carry a great deal. Gove et al expect it to carry an inheritance of pride in our nation’s industrial and imperial progress, to generate people who will go forth into the world, full to the brim, as good ambassadors for Britain in the global race.

The education professor Steve Wheeler asked on Twitter the other day why, after thousands of years of pouring from jugs and kettles, we still design vessels that spill. One answer could be that in our anxiety to pass on an inheritance of knowledge of conquests and rulers, and to establish the boundaries of our nationhood and identity, we have neglected to adequately pass on abilities to interpret cultural artefacts (the best pouring spouts etc) combined with abilities to critically design better solutions. Studying history is justified as using the past to inform our future actions. But the critical competencies to apply this learning can only be developed with practical, contextual and relational learning approaches.

I suspect that History is seen even more than ever as the ultimate vessel for values education since the demotion of Citizenship, PSHE and SEAL in the new National Curriculum and inspection regime. This is perhaps combined with the perception that there is a diminishing of religious worship and moral education in schools. This perceived lack of inculcated morals is being tackled by enabling more faith schools to be established (under the Free Schools programme), by distributing Bibles and so on. But, for more comprehensive reach, History is seen as the generic all-purpose vehicle to teach values. This explains why Gove emphasises the soft side of History that ‘it should generate empathy’. But, this empathy should be contained within a structure formed of values such as gratitude, respect, pride and hard work. It’s the same kind of values system that kills badgers ‘humanely’ – feeling empathy for the creature you are killing, but killing anyway because it serves an efficient political purpose. One might draw some links here with the First World War. Interesting then that the DfE are so actively promoting the ‘military ethos’ in schools, suggesting that values of self-esteem and team work can be imparted best through a militaristic framework.

It seems then, that all these logical fallacies about History education must be perpetuated in order to maintain History as an intact vessel, utterly controllable, through which to spout stories which in turn perpetuate ways of thinking that are not open to radical questioning.

NB: The image is an artwork by Kris Martin, which is a Chinese vase he smashes and reassembles every time it is put on display. I thought it had some good resonances with the reinventions of histories, curriculae and debates.


2 responses to “History as vessel

  1. Hey I disagree about “vessels that spill” only if we used them in haste without due care and attention. One of modern society’s problems…that we are all in too much of a hurry?!

  2. Yes, I appreciate that we need to be slower and more mindful. But I think the point stands that we don’t learn enough from diverse cultures around us, from nature and from past experience, in designing better objects and systems. That’s the point.

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