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Nico Zijlstra

Debate on what to teach in History

14 posts in this topic

The Dutch government embraces the idea of a History canon.

Or simply:"what every citizen in the Netherlands should know about Dutch History". How far can governments go to prescribe the facts of History? Or is it a good thing to start a debate on what's really important? How's the situation in GB, F, D, E, I?

Edited by Nico Zijlstra

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The Dutch government embraces the idea of a History canon.

Or simply:"what every citizen in the Netherlands should know about Dutch History". How far can governments go to prescribe the facts of History? Or is it a good thing to start a debate on what's really important? How's the situation in GB, F, D, E, I?

Since its initial design in the 1980s the GB national curriculum (NC) has tried to promote a 'preferred view' of (British) history. In broad terms we have to teach Britain 1066-1900, a 'european study' before 1914, and a world study (a )before and (b )after 1900. The preferred view is of 'Great' Britain and a few 'great' Britons.

Of course the idea of teaching a 'fact-based' history curriculum in the 21st century is odd given the way the subject has developed. Within the broad remit noted above it is possible (even including the 'facts' that the right wing politicians who designed it wanted included) to give an entirely alternative view to the 'preferred' version. Naturally, those of inclined to do so tend to pick and choose the moments and eras and events to provide 'other' versions.

You can see /@id=3301&POS[@stateId_eq_note]/@id=3301]the GB version via that link.

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Of course the idea of teaching a 'fact-based' history curriculum in the 21st century is odd given the way the subject has developed

You've got a point here, although one can object and say that some factual knowledge is the core of understanding history. The Dutch 'canon' in meant mainly for pupils in primary education and the first 3 years of secundary education (up until the age of 15)

Still the canon comes in a time when narrow neo-nationalism is moving forward in 'continental' Europe.

Within the broad remit noted above it is possible (even including the 'facts' that the right wing politicians who designed it wanted included) to give an entirely alternative view to the 'preferred' version.

Fortunately, the committee which has published the canon wants to start a history debate, not only on the choices they made, but on the facts and history as a cultural phenomenon.

In this election year in Holland it's the right-wing politicians who use the canon for their own politcal (narrow minded) purposes at the moment.

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I think governments should avoid defining curricula. I especially think that states should not be allowed to pick the history facts of their country. Too much room for intentional propaganda.

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I think governments should avoid defining curricula. I especially think that states should not be allowed to pick the history facts of their country. Too much room for intentional propaganda.

This is exactly what many European governments are tempted to do ("let's put the 'great' back in Great Britain"). Strangely enough, it's usually governments of the right who're most tempted to 'rewrite history' to make it the history of great men (usually) who 'made this country what it is' …

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I think governments should avoid defining curricula. I especially think that states should not be allowed to pick the history facts of their country. Too much room for intentional propaganda.

This is exactly what many European governments are tempted to do ("let's put the 'great' back in Great Britain"). Strangely enough, it's usually governments of the right who're most tempted to 'rewrite history' to make it the history of great men (usually) who 'made this country what it is' …

Unfortunately fewer and fewer history teachers in the UK seem capable of effectively subverting such right wing claptrap. Perhaps the profession attracts too much of the authoritarian personality? Or maybe we are just too defeated to do or teach anything other than "what we have been told"??

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I studied Philosophy and Politics at Warwick in the mid 1970s, and I remember that a great deal of the degree programme actually dealt with how you assess evidence for various claims (concerning both Philosophy and Politics).

When I talk to experts in other disciplines, particularly in History and Literature, I'm struck by how unconcerned they seem to be about examining the bases on which their disciplines rest. History teachers in particular seem to be very good at examining evidence on a 'micro-level', but very sloppy about looking at the big picture. I.e. there can be lots of discussion about the authenticity of this document or that, but people just accept statements like "The Industrial Revolution happened because coal, iron ore, water power and cheap labour were available".

But maybe I'm just ignorant and prejudiced …

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David, I sympathise. However, to put it bluntly, younger pupils prefer verbs to words with ‘–ism’ at the end. G.R.Elton, the author of ‘England under the Tudors’, was the lone voice among historians in saying no-one should do History until university, on the grounds that historical evidence needed to be studied in relation to the historical context. Meanwhile his nephew Ben Elton made a very nice living popularising the saga of the Tudors! Some History Teachers like academic rigour and could give you a good argument why History shouldn’t be considered a branch of Philosophy, but all History Teachers like telling a good story.

My copy of ‘Modern Teaching’ (General Editor Enid Blyton) Vol.1 History (c.1930) has a Frontispiece showing ‘King John Signing [sic] Magna Charta’ [sic]. The caption includes the sentence ‘Magna Charta is regarded as one of the greatest landmarks in the history of freedom.’ In this way the subject was defined as a series of topics that fitted in with the ‘Whig Interpretation of History’. As it happened, if you were a Mosleyite or a Marxist, you could have quite easily put a different spin on the same topics, and if you were determined to be objective you could involve pupils in deciding which version of the story best fitted the evidence. Like it or loathe it, ‘the saga’ is what most English people regarded as History.

By the 1970’s History teachers in England were realising that the content of the saga needed adjustment: History was now about making sense of the global village: 20th Century World History tended to replace British or Commonwealth History; and SCHP were doing Units on the background to the Arab-Israeli or Irish conflict. It may well be that in adjusting to the changing world some History departments went over the top in abandoning British History. Unfortunately this kind of experimentation was seen by the Thatcher government as a Marxist Plot, and they did come quite close to making a compulsory list of topics. They were prevented from doing so precisely because the list obviously left out crucial elements of the saga, and intelligent Tories had to admit that you couldn’t leave out episodes such as the Poll Tax and the Peasants’ Revolt, however painful! But ‘Empathy’, a concept explored by SCHP, was specifically forbidden by the government at this time, though interestingly it became a major feature of Religious Education syllabuses.

Perhaps because of this sudden intense political scrutiny History teachers themselves lost the plot, and proceeded to redefine the ‘saga’ in order to protect the subject. The Right proceeded to call for knowledge, facts, and a concentration on British History, and the Left demanded historical skills, with (apparently) no concern for content. It is quite a surprise that History teaching in England has recovered from all this, that the subject is popular, and is well taught. But there is no doubt that History became a political football, and remains a battered one, its inner core being perhaps a conviction, quite possibly an incorrect one, that Historians can analyse documents like no-one else, and that this is a very important, perhaps unique, skill.

As for History teachers today I am amazed at their professionalism, especially in terms of their understanding of what they are doing in a classroom. (As a young teacher I was completely nonplussed when an Inspector asked me what I thought I was hoping to achieve in the lesson, and I spent two years in my first post without realising that there was something called In-Service Training.) The fact that History teachers are pragmatic rather than philosophical in their approach was the fault of politicians, and still is.

I think we need to return to the saga as it stood in the 70’s, including its recognition that teaching purely or even mainly national history is inappropriate for nation states, especially for ones armed with nuclear weapons. But in any case, I think that representatives of all the political parties should sit down with the professional groups concerned, recognise the damage they have done (and continue to do) to History teaching, and come up with an English ‘canon’. We have rather fewer parties than The Netherlands, so it ought to be possible to come up with a typical British compromise rather than the typical British fudge we have at the moment.

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Those are very heartening words, Norman. I must admit that I was being a bit provocative - I've met several very professional History teachers in my contacts with E-HELP, for example.

One of the fundamental issues for me as a university teacher is my younger students' lack of context. I still remember a brilliant History lesson from school about the Vietnam war, which brought out the historical rivalries between Thais, Vietnamese and Chinese which have been being fought out in Indo-China for the past thousand years. This is not the whole of the story of the Vietnam War, but it must be a very important factor to take into account.

I've experienced similar phenomena myself when trying to explain to people that both Osama bin Laden and Ho Chi Minh were once US allies, and were both supplied and had their fighters trained by the US. It's very difficult for people who know little about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the resistance to Japanese occupation of Vietnam to understand the events that came next.

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Here in Australia history is the latest hot topic as our federal govt makes more and more interference with what is taught in our state systems. They provide only a small part of the overall funding but have in the last three years, tied it very tightly to mandated requirements including the "return to teaching Australian history in narrative style" rather than what they claim is the current predominant progressive methods of investigation and child centred learning. There is lots about it in out newspapers if you want to know more. It raises questions such as whose narrative of Australians at Gallipoli - were we heroes orr did we cut and run!

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There is lots about it in out newspapers if you want to know more. It raises questions such as whose narrative of Australians at Gallipoli - were we heroes orr did we cut and run!

and indeed who is "we"? ;)

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Very true! Another amusing aspect - our federal govt requires every school to display an "Australian Values" poster as part of the funding complinace. It's a lovely large coloured poster which has as its background the famous photo of Simpson and his donkey, supposedly an icon of Australian history and heroism. Just a few points - Simpson wasn't his real name, he hailed from South Shields (coincidentally my partner's home town) and as a merchant seaman jumped ship in Sydney just before the war. He was just one out of thousands of men who were conscripted and showed bravery under fire. Brave, but not more so than many others who are forgotten.

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Very true! Another amusing aspect - our federal govt requires every school to display an "Australian Values" poster as part of the funding complinace. It's a lovely large coloured poster which has as its background the famous photo of Simpson and his donkey, supposedly an icon of Australian history and heroism. Just a few points - Simpson wasn't his real name, he hailed from South Shields (coincidentally my partner's home town) and as a merchant seaman jumped ship in Sydney just before the war. He was just one out of thousands of men who were conscripted and showed bravery under fire. Brave, but not more so than many others who are forgotten.

Hi Jean

I hope the NUT had something to say about such crass propaganda in the classroom

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Mmm...well my own union, of which you know I am president, did try, but our PM, faithful follower of Bush and Blair, currently has the upper monetary hand!

I recently attended a national conference on public education in Sydney at which John Ralston Saul, the Canadian philosopher, was the keynote speaker. He was marvellous - mainly warning of the fragile nature of democracy and the role public education plays in a democratic society. The other keynote speaker was one of our better exports to the UK, Geoffrey Robinson, a highly esteemed high court jugde, writer and coilcidentally married to the writer Kathy Lette which is why he lives in England.

He was asked to talk on what history he thought should be taught to Australian students and his response really boiled down to a history of democracy starting, he said, with the English Civil War and the development of parliamentary democracy and then picking up a similar theme with the settlement of Australia and up to the present with emphasis on the UN, world conflicts etc. Too much to repeat here but I actually thought he made very good sense.

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