Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The "history wars" may

shortly be re-ignited. It seems that at least one of our politicians has concerns about the "black arm-band" view of history currently being taught in our schools. 
I also have concerns about the way history is taught in schools, although the reasons for my concern are probably not quite the same as that of any politician. Let me explain.
Many years ago the Senior Cat was the head of a large country school, one of a number of such schools for which he had responsibility. He was approached one night by one of the farmers on the School Council. This man had left school at the age of twelve to work on the family farm. He was one of many boys who did the same thing. It was often not a matter of choice but of necessity. I wrote about his funeral, a celebration of a life well lived, in May last year.
This man's Matriculation Certificate, duly framed, held pride of place on the wall of his living area until he died.
But the story does not end there. He did Australian History as one of his subjects. It was at that point that my father confirmed what he had always suspected. Here was a man who had, despite his limited early education, been reading widely. He was passionate about history. He knew a lot.
There was a unit of history that bothered him greatly. It concerned the exploration of the area he had been brought up in as a child, the one his family had farmed for several generations.  On several occasions when he and his wife went back for family reunions and other events he went out to re-explore the landscape.
Eventually he came to me, by then much more grown up, and said,
"Cat, I have a problem. I think the history books are wrong."
He went ahead and explained. I understood, just. Here was a man using primary sources, cartography, trigonometry and logical reasoning to argue his point.
When he had finished I agreed that what he had told me made sense. What, I asked, was he going to do about it?
Now that I agreed, he told me, he thought he might write it down. Someone might be interested. I promised to read whatever he wrote.
It took him a little while but the half-page "note" appeared in an academic journal and any new history book will tell the story differently. Even his youngest grandchildren know he wrote "some real history".
Now my question is, "How many students in their final year of school could have done what he did?"
Oh yes, he was older. He had a life time of reading behind him. He had a passion for history. He grew up in the area he wrote about. But he still had to find out for himself how to search the primary sources and apply his other skills.
In the equivalent of my "O" level year I did an extra history subject. It was called "Economic History". I read the textbook and memorised the summaries at the back. I had read a lot of historical fiction. I told my school I wanted to sit the exam because I thought I could pass. My teachers were reluctant. I was persistent.  I paid the fee (as you had to back then) out of my pocket money. I passed the exam and I passed it well. It really took very little effort on my part. I know now that the standard had to be rather low if I could learn that much without any guidance.
But, if that was low, then how much lower is the current standard? Just what is being taught? The resources available now are so much greater but it seems that there is a narrow, politically correct view of history being taught in many places. Where this is challenged those who are teaching it are also being challenged.
If we don't teach a wide view of history then children are not going to understand the world they live in any more than they understand the past. 
I think we do need to re-ignite the history wars. We need to tell the politically correct brigade that they might have won a battle in the past but they have not won the war.


Helen Devries said...

I could not agree more.
I had the good fortune to be well taught...to be encouraged to look at things differently...to find out from primary sources - and to try to evaluate their worth.
I now see a bastardised form of history being peddled...with more attention to current preoccupations than to what we can unearth about the past.

catdownunder said...

I had one good teacher - although he disapproved of my desire to do the economic history exam! He did at least try to make us think - but I realise most of the class was not interested. It must have been very disheartening.