Saturday, 3 September 2011

In defence of an episodic History education

Here is a list of topics I studied in history over the course of my primary and secondary school education, more or less in the order I studied them: Celts & Romans, Tudors & Stuarts, The Stone Age, Scottish Wars of Independence, The Industrial Revolution, the female suffrage campaign, the formation of the Welfare State, the prelude to World War I and the Weimar Republic/ Nazism/ World War II (on about three or four separate occasions).

I don’t think my experience was that unusual among British history students of my generation: a more or less random assortment of topics, linked by little more than an underlying eurocentrism, and a peculiar obsession with the Nazis. It is this pick ‘n’ mix approach, I think, which is increasingly coming under attack. Simon Jenkins decries ‘optionalism’, insisting that history must have a ‘narrative’, “starting at the beginning and running to the end”. In doing so, he allies himself with Education Secretary Michael Gove, and his history tsar, Niall Ferguson, prominent opponents of ‘tapas’ or ‘smorgasbord’ history.

But I think the loud objections to Ferguson’s view of history (most entertainingly from children’s history god Terry Deary) illustrate the problems of this approach. The story that Ferguson wants to tell is the story of how and why Europe came to dominate the world. There’s two problems with this. Firstly, there is the question of the truth or otherwise of this narrative. For example, Ferguson is a revisionist historian who tends to emphasise the positive effects of European colonialism. But it would be deeply irresponsible of him to present these views as accepted historical fact, and to fail to acknowledge the number of historians who would have profoundly object to this picture.

Even if Ferguson’s answers are valid, he may still be asking the wrong questions. Ferguson’s proposed emphasis has raised eyebrows because of its unabashed eurocentrism. But it also looks like it will be strongly focused on ’history from above’ – the big picture political, economic and military story, as opposed to the details of everyday life.

The trouble with teaching history as a narrative, therefore, is that it sacrifices two different types of neutrality. In the first place, It involves favouring one narrative over another. This is particularly problematic, given the strongly ideological flavour of many of these competing accounts. Favouring one narrative over another means making a choice between using history to develop a national myth to foster patriotism, or to seek cross-cultural understanding and to mould global citizens. Methodological neutrality is sacrificed, too. To insist on teaching history as a grand narrative is to presume that history should be about big picture questions, and therefore implies that excessive focus on details is a less valid approach.

Why should we care about neutrality? Why should the people designing a history curriculum try to avoid making a stand on controversial questions? There is a ethical argument and a practical argument. The moral objection is that history should not be used as an ideological tool – children should be left to make up their own minds, and is it is illegitimate to try to ‘mould’ them in any way.

The practical point is more often missed. Children are rarely passive receptacles of education. Just because you design a course for them does not mean that they will absorb it in the way you want them to. Consequently, it is not just what children should know, but also what will engage and interest them, that must be considered when designing a curriculum.

The episodic approach to history escapes both these problems. Rather than having to choose one big, sweeping narrative, it allows students to focus on different topics in depth. An essential part of properly addressing a topic in history is to understand how it is viewed from different ideological and historical perspectives. If one topic lends itself to a given approach, the next can be used to illustrate a completely different way to do history. That way, there is a hope of finding something to suit every taste. The thing that educationalists often seem forget is that even if you spoon feed children a certain message, you cannot be sure that they will swallow it. An equally crucial task of a history education is to try and get them to develop a taste for the subject.

The objection to an episodic history education is that it leaves the student with big gaps in their knowledge, and little sense of how events fit together. But history is so vast that nobody can hope, in the limited time a child has in the history classroom, to cover even the ‘basics’. There will always be omissions, and those omissions will always be controversial.

A more plausible aim is to give the curiosity to ask their own questions, the tools to follow these interests, and the critical faculties to form their own narratives. I think the depth and pluralism of the episodic approach best serves this goal.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, the Ferguson-esque 'big narrative picture' way of doing history begs the question: whose picture? Whether the Eurocentric, teleological, patriarchal, reactionary post-colonial anti-patriarchal pro-feminist pro-populace, etc.

    It is not quite clear what you mean by 'episodic'. 'The Stone Age' for example is pretty big-picture in itself, while the formation of the Welfare State is more problem-specific. Episodic history in the sense of a stream of mid-level case studies or problems could simply leave its recipient with no sense of chronological or even thematic coherence, and without the mental models for mapping the big picture.

    Both approaches have their flaws and the best answer to my mind is the non-soundbite-friendly 'do both'. Take the Oxford history course: 'big picture' thinking is encouraged through mandatory medieval, early modern and modern 'outline' British or General History papers, which each cover a broad sweep of time. They are complemented by detailed theme-specific papers. Across the course, political, socio-economic and cultural aspects are all considered over long- and short-term; as are both the experiential and the conceptual - material culture and daily life, and intellectual thought.

    I would describe this as 'episodic' in the sense that topics vary by size and nature, and I think it is easily applicable to school education. A broad 'Tudors and Stuarts' topic can be followed by '18th Century Art'. A child's school history education shouldn't be composed of a series of equally-shaped politics-through-the-centuries projects. Variation in scope is itself stimulating and lends itself to methodological interest.

    As for gaps - they're inevitable, and you're quite right: our job is to stimulate interest and the critical thinking that enables them to be plugged independently - and if they're not interested, well, you can't please everyone.