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Thursday, 22 September 2011

School History: A reflection

Since I posted my last somewhat exasperated comments I thought a bit more about this.  I'm not saying that there is no purpose to straight factual, chronological knowledge about the past - what I called Pub Quiz General Knowledge.  Surely it does enrich one's life to be able to look at one's surroundings and know that that church is older than the manor house, which is older than the factory.  or to have some idea about the periods in which they are built.  And if - as it surely is - education is to some extent about enhancing one's cultural awareness, then there is important value in that.  I suppose what I am wondering is a: whether this sort of thing ought to be compulsory; b: whether it needs to be examined; and c: the extent to which damage is done by trying to weave this sort of thing into some sort of 'Our Island Story' narrative.  I think that this basic 'cultural awareness' sense of history is more than slightly sullied by its insertion into some nationally-determined, compulsory curriculum.

When it comes to what I think history REALLY is, when we get beyond knowing who came first out of the Romans or the Vikings, we don't need any of this.  The real, socially and culturally valuable skills of History proper can be taught regardless of the place or period under study - they are all equally 'relevant' if one has a more sophisticated understanding of what relevance might mean.

1 comment:

  1. Junior medievalist22 September 2011 at 09:19

    I've been thinking about this over the couple of days since you posted the initial provocative suggestion. I, like you, hate buzz-words like 'narrative' and 'relevance' used to talk about history, and it goes without saying that the island story/national pride nonsense is awful. But, just because Gove et al demand an 'our island story' version of history doesn't mean that all our teachers will automatically teach that version. The good history graduates universities turn out, who become the teachers, are surely better than that. They'll find a way around it, or to kick against it, surely? At school when Clause 28 was placed on the statute books, I remember my teachers feelings about the restrictions that placed on them came through loud and clear. And doesn't knowing some basic, factual 'stuff' sometimes prove useful in helping us to get necessary perspective on the politics of the world we inhabit and, rightly or wrongly, attempt to intervene in? To turn history into a wholly optional subject risks denying this perspective to some children, who will grow up to think -to take a contemporary example - that problems in Israel/Palestine can be solved with no reference to anything that happened before their lifetimes. I also look back with concern about what happened to subjects that became 'optional' in the past. Optional Latin (not that I think everyone should learn it) was not even an option in my comprehensive, because it was not taught at all; only the minimum modern foreign language requirements (French, French or French) were met. And after the decision in the mid-eighties to allow schools to teach either Physics, Chemistry and Biology or the less challenging and detailed Science curriculum, my comprehensive -- along with most others -- opted for Science, leaving the single subjects to private schools. I worry that, if we concede that History can be wholly optional at secondary level, it may turn into a subject largely examined at GCSE/A/Bacc level at private schools. The kind of cultural awareness you speak of in this post would then become a class privilege - rather like separate teaching in Physics, Chemistry and Biology often are now. All this is written, by the way, from the perspective of not having done a History GCSE, but having picked the subject up at A-Level.


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