Saturday, 23 October 2021

What history should we be teaching children?

 It's up for debate again and I am interested because one of the local mothers was concerned enough to tackle me about the issue yesterday. She is not happy with the "negativity" in the curriculum and the plans to change it still further in that direction.

"Do my children really need to know that stuff? It's up for debate anyway isn't it?"

History isn't a set of facts or even a set of ideas. It should be up for debate.  The problem is that, in schools, there is no room for debate. There is no time for debate. There is a curriculum to be got through and that curriculum is bound by a new set of "politically correct" ideas about what children should know.

I don't subscribe to the "black armband" view of history - the view that the indigenous population of this country was deliberately given "measles infested" blankets to kill them off. It is not true. I would much prefer children were taught that the early settlers, many of them convicts, brought with them diseases that the indigenous population had no protection against. That might usefully lead to discussions about modern health, vaccinations and some of the reasons why our indigenous population has a lower life expectancy.  That doesn't make what happened right but, given our understanding of medicine at the time, it makes it easier to understand. Isn't this the sort of thing we should be talking about? Or should we only be suggesting that the land was "stolen" and that we "owe" the indigenous population a debt we can never repay?

Many slave traders bought their victims from the tribal "kings" or chiefs in their native countries. Some of those "kings" became very wealthy. This is a conveniently forgotten fact - if it is known at all. It is not what I was taught in school. We were told that ships arrived and people were "captured" and taken away. That they were slaves in their own countries was never mentioned. It doesn't make the slave trade right, if anything it makes it worse, but it does mean that there is another way of seeing it. Is this something we should be discussing?

I remember "social studies" in primary school. It was a mix of history, geography and more. It focussed on Downunder of course. I was taught we "lived off the sheep's back" and which areas of my state we grew wheat in. I was taught about "Flynn of the Inland". I was proud of the fact that my grandfather knew this man. I "did" Captain Sturt going down the Murray more times than I care to think about. I was proud of the fact that a great-uncle lived in what had been Sturt's cottage - now an historic site. I was taught, quite wrongly, that First Fleet convicts were sent out for things like stealing a loaf of bread. I grew tired of all this. I longed to learn other history as well.

It was my love of reading which saved my love of history. I devoured Rosemary Sutcliff, Geoffrey Trease, and Cynthia Harnett. The librarians at the Children's Library in the city knew me well enough to know they needed to include such things in the parcels they sent me through the Children's Country Lending Service. I feel sorry for children now. They don't have access to so many of the books I found fascinating.

In high school I did more of the same until, in the equivalent of my O level year, I could suddenly do "Modern History" and there was also an "Ancient History" and an "Economic History" subject in the list of available subjects. Only "Modern History" was taught in the school I was attending at the time but one of the teachers guided me through Ancient History by giving me the reading, giving me essay topics - and marking my efforts. I also read the Economic History text and learned the chapter summaries at the back of the book. I sat all three exams and passed. Looking back though it was the amount of reading I had done which was the reason for my success. I was taught very little. Just one history lesson stands out, the one in which the teacher walked in and said, "Close your books. I am about to tell you what will be happening, about the history you are living now." He proceeded to tell us about what was then Rhodesia. His predictions, right down to the disaster which was Mugabe, were correct. Some years later, just before his death, this same teacher told me how frustrated he was by the curriculum.

I would be frustrated too. I only ever taught one class of "normal" children. I hope I taught them that history was not just the "facts" in the book. What I would be expected to teach them now would cause me many problems. History is too complex for "politically correct" thinking to be imposed on it.


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