Tuesday, December 31, 2013

What is the Future of the National History Curriculum?

Last night, I heard a very interesting discussion on the future of the national history curriculum on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week. You can listen to the episode here, or download the podcast version here. The discussion was centred around Michael Gove, the current Education Secretary in the Cameron/Clegg coalition government mess, who has called for tougher exams and an end to modular GCSEs to make English qualifications more competitive on the world stage. He is not a historian, nor has he studied history, but he wants to rewrite the history curriculum to give students a better understanding of the grand sweep of British history. Joining him on the panel were three acclaimed historians: Simon Schama, Margaret Macmillan and Tom Holland (I'll admit it, I hadn't heard of him before). All three agreed that it is time to overhaul the history curriculum, but they also cautioned about creating a heroic, hagiographic construction of the British past (Gove himself claimed to be a "whig" when it comes to history). The term history was used in its colloquial sense throughout to mean the past, which is really what we teach school children. We tend to shield them from the messy, "muddled" (as Macmillan put it), world that is historical debate. Of course, this means they miss all the fun!

I am a product of two different history curricula during my schooling: Ontario all the way through the end of high school and the English A-Level system. The two have very different approaches, but both miss the mark for making people well-versed in history. Throughout my Ontario learning, I always complained about how shallow the history teaching was, spending only a few hours on what appeared to be immense topics (I think I spent a total of three days studying the Russian Revolution, about 20 minutes on the Tudors and about the same on the Industrial Revolution). Instead, my learning was a whirlwind tour of world history, with the same core Canadian narrative repeated in every grade with little added detail; one textbook and one version of events. Critical analysis and the other techniques that make historians such skilled people were entirely lacking. Conversely, the English A-Level is all about detailed, close analysis; spending weeks on a minute section of the past until you really understand it (even if the final essay answer is considered tediously loyal in its adherence to what was taught). This is closer (except the essay bit!) to what historians do in their day-to-day research, but it lacks a broader picture. I often found myself referring back to the sweeping tour of the past of my Ontario days to see how what I was learning fit into the bigger picture. English students leave with a detailed knowledge of Romans, Tudors, Victorian and Edwardian Social Reform, and Nazis - lots of Nazis. Unfortunately, they don't really know why the French Revolution mattered or why Germany became powerful in the first place. The ideal system is probably a mix of both a sweeping chronology and detailed study. This is how history is generally taught at university level and it seems to work. Even if it works, the emergence of new trends in history, such as transnational, postcolonial and Eastern European histories to name a few, show just how much we are missing out and how immense history really is.

Two things struck me about the discussion. Firstly, the idea of a national curriculum where all students learn the same syllabus and write the same exam. While I disagree with J.L. Granatstein's emphasis on military history in his polemical work Who Killed Canadian History?, he is right to emphasise how fragmented history teaching in Canada is with at least 13 different curricula. You could further fragment the system. For instance, I am a product of French Immersion and I spent much more time on Francophone-Canadian history than most. The other element of the discussion that intrigued me was the repeated notion of patriotism in teaching history. Being a product of North America and a specialist in 20th-century history, the p-word puts me on edge, it being too closely-related to its cousin nationalism. Given, Britain generally lacks North American-style flag-waving, but it is creeping into British society all the time (I really can't get excited that my potato chips have salt from Cheshire and all-British potatoes). It is fine to be quietly proud to live in a country, but this should not cloud all the bad things that happen there. Rather, this pride should push you to fight to rectify the ills. History can help by identifying the root causes of problems and consider how previous reforms have been successful, or not so. To understand how the world around us came to be is critical to living in the present and thinking about the future. Now if only Canada could have a discussion about the future of teaching history on a national radio show...