Political Ideology and the History Curriculum: A Teacher’s Perspective
School history is different to academic history. There are fundamental differences in the ways historians work and the ways in which pupils and teachers work. However, this has not made the debate about what school history should be about any less fierce. The most obvious tension is between skills and knowledge, and how strongly each one should be prioritised. Moreover, ‘skills’ and ‘knowledge’ are contested terms by policy makers and historians. Should history be a conduit to build the skills that Her Majesty’s Inspectors say are the aim of education, or does it seek to build more subtle skills that are particular to the study of history? The debate about knowledge in history is even more hotly contested. What pupils learn at school is influential in shaping the people they become. If the aim of history is to create independent, questioning thinkers then the knowledge they learn must prepare them for that. Frequently, the content of the History Orders has been accused of being politically motivated.
Deuchar’s 1992 pamphlet, ‘History on the Brink’, is a good example of the challenges facing the teaching community. Writing as the Vice-Chancellor for the Campaign for Real Education, Deuchar produced a forthright, opinionated piece on what he perceived as an ‘attack on historical knowledge.’ History was described in romantic terms as a ‘majestic subject’ that faces the ignominy of being torn down by propagated myths about skills that have been ‘cobbled together’. Deuchar’s view is not uncommon; John Stokes MP (1990) questioned why we could not ‘go back to the good old days when we learnt by heart the names of kings and queens of England, the feats of our warriors.’ Prime Minister Thatcher went further, smugly suggesting that ‘you are not a complete person unless you know, roughly chronologically, how things happened’ (1990).
Michael Gove initially criticised the current History Orders for failing to create and affirm a British national identity via setting out on a ‘celebratory romp through heroes and triumphs of English history’ (Evans, 2013). Gove apparently wanted history to create a British national identity by establishing a meta-narrative in the curriculum that focused almost solely on white, male history. The only acknowledgment towards women existing in Britain in the past was ‘women’s suffrage’ which was categorised under ‘challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day’ (History Orders 2013). Attached to the end of the proposed draft was ‘at least one study of a significant society or issue in world history.’ This betrays the draft’s narrow-minded approach in creating a British national identity. It was exclusive, solely creating a narrative that championed rich, white men.
“The only acknowledgment towards women existing in Britain in the past was ‘women’s suffrage’ which was categorised under ‘challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day’.”
The National Curriculum’s important role in shaping school history continues to encourage vast amounts of critical evaluation. Maurice Galton made the astute observation that the debate about transmission versus discovery seems to exist on the extremes. It is rare to find an advocate for pragmatism. Pedagogy must be considered rationally and pragmatically. The solution to this debate lies in a mixture of intuition and craft knowledge. Jordanova (2006) correctly argues that skills and substance are mutually dependent. Husbands’ (2003) argument agrees with Jordanova. He urged that historical knowledge must be developed through a process of enquiry in classrooms that ultimately develop meanings for pupils.
However, this leads to the problem of who has the authority to decide what is an appropriate mixture of skills and knowledge. Gove’s final History Orders are heavily revised – abandoning their ‘chronological gallop’ through the past. Furthermore, topics are far less prescriptive, which gives teachers more creativity to interpret the curriculum. Most importantly, the revision of the History Orders (2013) now has a focus on analytical skills and historical understanding to go alongside a desire to increase contextual knowledge.
“Overall, the current curriculum encouraged students to become broad-thinkers who are open-minded and highly skilled.”
However, the ‘skills’ in history education are not defined beyond being ‘transferable.’ Transferable implies that these skills should be vocationally orientated. Her Majesty’s Inspectors (Moon, 2003) comprehensively listed the skills that pupils should develop at school: communication, numerical, observation (acutely observe patterns using scale and perspective); imaginative, organizational, social; and problem-solving. The current History Orders (2007) certainly develop all of these skills to varying degrees. There is an emphasis on communication, particularly reading, writing and oral skills to avoid and overcome misunderstanding. Observation skills are developed as pupils use cause and consequence, change and continuity, significance and observation to identify patterns from the past and assess how history moves in trends. Imaginative skills mean the ability to put oneself in other situations, achieved by the constant encouragement for pupils of history to use empathy in the history classroom. Overall, the current curriculum encouraged students to become broad-thinkers who are open-minded and highly skilled.
With this in mind, the proposed draft was criticized for being pre-occupied with content, covering large amounts of chronology that left deeper understanding of historical enquiry at risk. The draft curriculum did not mention interpretation or the ability to communicate about the past. This would result in empathy and the use of imaginative skills facing neglect. In turn, there was a danger that through the study of history, pupils would not be challenged to think broadly and deeply about different cultures, ethnicities and diversity. Pupils would not practice the skills of empathy and communication to as great an extent as in the current curriculum.
Nevertheless, the revised final draft addresses some of these issues. Evans (2013) argued that the revised History Orders (2013) had a larger focus on historical enquiry and building skills. The latest Orders aim to ‘discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed’ (History Orders 2013). The increased importance of developing skills through historical enquiry is a result of broad consultation. This change to the new History Orders will empower pupils to study history through different perspectives and develop their own meaning.
In reference to history in particular, Jordanova’s noted historical skills were technical, interpretive and source-based. The current curriculum understands and seeks to develop pupils understanding of historical sources. Under ‘Key Processes’ (History Orders 2007), the curriculum lists a sub-heading of ‘using evidence’ that demands pupils can identify, select and evaluate a range of historical sources. Pupils are encouraged to be guided by Bloom’s Taxonomy to think deeply about the use of sources in historical enquiry.
Contrastingly, the proposed History Orders are typically brief when suggesting the use of sources in the classroom. The opening statement of the document suggests that pupils should ‘understand how different types of historical sources are used rigorously.’ Firstly, it should be noted that the brevity of instruction in the proposed Orders is partly party political insofar as the new government wants to appear less bureaucratic than its predecessor. However, the key difference between the current and proposed Orders is the use of the word ‘understand’ (History Orders 2013). Whereas, in the current Orders, pupils are evaluating sources, building on skills of literacy, interpretation, significance and communication, the proposed Orders simply ask pupils to understand. Understanding can be reached more easily and could deny pupils the chance to test and hone the skills they have learnt through studying sources.
Finally, and perhaps most controversially, is the tension of how important historical knowledge and content are in the History National Curriculum. The issue of how important historical knowledge is has already been covered. However, it is more significant to decide exactly what content is covered on the curriculum. This has been the most contentious issue in developing new History Orders because the debate is based around political ideology. Jordanova argued in 2003 that curricula need to frequently change and mobilize fresh energies. He used the example of more administrators in higher education becoming more sensitized to gender issues which in turn, led to more courses being available to students that view the past with gender issues in mind. As society changes, the study of history must use new perspectives to stay relevant. For example, it is reasonable to expect that soon pupils will be able to study how homosexuals have been mistreated and prosecuted in the past.
“…it is reasonable to expect that soon pupils will be able to study how homosexuals have been mistreated and prosecuted in the past.”
For a long time, history in British schools has been approached teleologically via the nation state. Modern nation states are presented as the norm, and it is assumed that the past has been building towards this ‘enlightened’ social and political era of the nation state. The current History Orders are divided into two areas of study: British history, and European and World history. Both of these areas of study track the ‘development of political power’ (History Orders 2007) to the modern day. This creates a narrative that everything that has happened in Britain and Europe since the Middle Ages has been moving towards a modern nation state.
This is a particularly narrow view of history – and the proposed History Orders are equally, if not more, guilty of presenting pupils with the view that history should be studied in a roughly chronologically manner that ends with the modern – often democratic – nation state. Simply, pupils study the development of church, state and society in Britain from 1066 until the modern day with increasingly rare diversions from that carefully constructed path. Undoubtedly the motivations in both the current and proposed Orders are political. They were created at a time when Britain was trying to forge an identity as an increasing influx of immigrants into Britain causes elements of social panic. Education is an easy and effective way to establish this identity and this was an attempt to hijack history in schools in order to retain certain values in society.
Nevertheless, the content of the current curriculum is different from the proposed Orders. Within British history, the current curriculum states that pupils must study ‘the impact through time of the movement and settlement of diverse peoples to, from and within the British Isles’ (History Orders 2007). This shows a commitment to pupils understanding and questioning the role of race and ethnicity in British nationality and identity. Furthermore, when looking at the British Empire, the current curriculum admirably considers the perspective of the colonized, with a focus on the slave trade and resistance and decolonization.
Conversely, the proposed Orders focus almost exclusively on British History. Despite changes from the original draft and the introduction of a suggestion that teachers cover the transatlantic slave trade, the proposed Orders are still guilty of appearing as celebratory propaganda of white, British heroes. The Orders (2013) are obsessed with studying power, control and order, with teachers instructed to cover how Henry VIII consolidated power and the tussle for control during the English Civil War. Conspicuously absent is any real reference to studying British history from the perspective of anything other than white males, or studying the development of the world outside of Western Europe at all. This narrow-minded approach will surely develop insular thinkers who cannot be provoked into considering Britain’s place in the past by studying other cultures, ethnicities, religions and civilizations.
In conclusion, despite the revisions to the original draft, the proposed Orders for school history fall well short of achieving the wider goals of history. They are not equipped to allow teachers to provoke children into becoming independent-minded and thoughtful questioners of the past. The goal of history is to understand that we can learn from the past in any manner of ways by using different subjective perspectives. It is possible to strive for the truth, but objective truth is generally considered unobtainable. One man’s terrorist is, for instance, another man’s freedom fighter – depending on the view point taken. Therefore it is wrong for the proposed Orders to obviously create an unquestioning narrative of British triumphalism. The proposed Orders appear to be a step-back from the current Orders in terms of the importance of skills and the breadth and depth of knowledge studied. The proposed Orders do not prioritise the historical skills of enquiry, source evaluation and interpretation as highly as the current curriculum. The content is even more fixated on British political history, providing pupils with a meagre diet of available historical content.
Nevertheless, a critical essay is a subjective perspective of the current and proposed Orders. Indubitably it is influenced by my own training, politics and ideological views and previous experience. Many historians have celebrated the proposed Orders for reclaiming British identity and teaching pupils what they consider to be important, the kings and queens of England. As Moon claimed in 2003, the implementation of a National Curriculum was a ‘remarkable political achievement.’ However, Hill’s (1989) call for ‘a little self-examination’ to stop history ‘becoming a plaything of party politics’ is still important.
This article was published by VoicED with the kind permission of Mr. F, a secondary school history teacher in England.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of VoicED, any associated organisations, or the author’s educational institution or colleagues.
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