Max Hastings had an interesting piece in the Guardian during the break attacking the comments on History teaching in the recent QCA report. I haven’t read the report, so can’t evaluate his critique, but I can say that he gets one thing exactly right.
He singles out the ‘alarm call’ about the
perceived “lack of relevance” of history to pupils’ future working lives. This echoes the notorious remarks of Charles Clarke, when education secretary, dismissing medieval and classical studies.
and rightly knocks on the head the idea that everything in the school curriculum should be relevant to our working lives:
At the weekend, I glanced at some of my old school essays. The questions seem interesting: “Should one think of Henry II as a lawless and arbitrary monarch, or as the founder of an orderly legal and administrative system?”; “Why did Edward I succeed in Wales and fail in Scotland?”; “Can anything be said in favour of James I’s foreign policy?”
Even in 1961, one could scarcely argue that familiarity with such themes contributed much to employability. They were no more “relevant” to middle-class white teenagers then than to schoolchildren of West Indian or Muslim origins now. We addressed them, first, because education is properly about learning to think, and objectively to assess evidence; second, so that we knew something about a broad sweep of the history of the society to which, whether by birth or migration, we belonged.
He’s right to attack the utilitarian approach he identifies to the curriculum.
So much of what is worthwhile can only be learned (by most of us if taught) and is not directly, or even in many cases indirectly, useful to our marketability or the economy in general. Parents with cultural resources time and money can often compensate for the failure of schools to teach these things to their kids; the utilitarian approach impoverishes the educational experiences of the disadvantaged most.
He’s also right that we should know something about the broad sweep of the history of the society to which we belong. And he’s also right that teaching that broad sweep will lead to the development of a cultural identity.
But that is a different matter from aiming to produce a particular sentiment or identity in children, which he does hint that he approves of (not least by his reference to History teaching in the US). I’m always surprised when I talk to American history teachers (left or right) how common it is that they think part of their aim is to produce some sort of patriotic sentiment in their students; and this is common ground in the culture war debates over history standards here. I worry that teaching for patriotism, or for any kind of sentiment, distorts the intellectual environment and jeopardizes the academic goals which Hastings endorses. Obviously showing this requires more examples than a blog post warrants, but think about individuals like Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, and Richard Nixon, and how differently you would teach about them if you wanted simply to educate the children in how objectively to assess evidence and to think, than if you wanted to produce positive feelings and attachments (impossible, probably, in Nixon’s case, but maybe requiring some strategic silences in the cases of Martin Luther King and Thomas Jefferson).
My own favourite example is the way the Montgomery bus boycott is treated in textbooks and by teachers. My own daughter was first taught about the boycott when she was 6—she came home and told me (what she had been told) that Rosa Parks was a “tired old black lady” who refused to give up her seat on the bus. I think this myth (which in various forms infiltrates many if not most High School textbooks in US history) does a good job of engaging the emotional sympathies of young people, but a terrible job of enabling them to see the evidence about causal processes at work. I discuss the particular example in more detail here and also in my new book (US; UK); so pervasive are the Rosa Parks myths that one of the referees of my new book said that although he was a long-time contributor to the Highlander School he had not previously been aware of Rosa Parks’s connection.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to promote particular loyalties and affect without jeopardizing the more academic goals Hastings endorses, just that it is at best difficult, and that there will always be a temptation to manage the trade offs to the detriment of the academic lessons; a temptation which is more likely to be indulged if History teachers see promoting sentiment as part of their mission.