Friday, July 2, 2010

Rethinking History Teaching

The question of how to teach history in schools is a hard subject to avoid these days as countries around the world struggle to rethink their place in response to rapid globalization trends. It has come up afresh in my mother country, England where there is talk by the new coalition of government of revising the history curriculum.
The Independent in an interesting interview with Niall Ferguson, the noted historian and media personality who might help the UK government revising the curriculum, made some interesting points about some of the challenges involved in teaching history today in schools. In order to get away from the inevitable tendency by all countries to conceive of history as a great national epic and as a result become one of the least liked subjects, he suggests a question based approach that does not assume that historians or teachers are ‘omniscent’ and that history is just a set of dates to be learned. He would model the approach on the course he teaches at Harvard, “a broad global history from the 1400s to the 20th century, which seeks to ask the question: "Why did the West conquer the rest?” More interestingly he goes on to recommend that the approach be non-Eurocentric: "if you went on a world tour in the 1420s you would not have bet that the West would come to dominate the globe". How it happened, agrees Ferguson, is not simply a matter of Western triumph or still less triumphalism; Ferguson has spent time in China, India and Latin America to investigate why some other civilisations simply "imploded" of their own accord, while others were indeed overcome by European military prowess, or microbes.”

While Ferguson is not saying anything particularly new --his media stardom may now give the approach the extra push it needs to move the debate forward so we resist the temptation to move backwards to the traditional narrative approach favored by so many textbooks and examiners. That temptation seems harder to resist at a time when national identity is being questioned in so many countries faced with issues related to immigration and devolution.

Not that the traditional narrative approach is toast. It can be incorporated into history classrooms but we should concede it can be done so much better on TV. As Ferguson suggests, one of the reasons history is such a hit "on television and in the bookshops but, apart from the Third Reich and Martin Luther King, a lost cause in the classroom” might be because (as Shakespeare understood so well) we need plenty of visual images and drama) for us to soak in the wider import of our past. So rather than shun the History Channel let's use it in the classroom along with the other plentiful sources of multimedia source material available on the Internet. By clearly stating the one fact about history all can agree on that no one story is adequate to describe the past.

Can we persuade the examiners and the politicians to move in this direction? Can we shift classroom history from solely focusing on the special genius and other merits of a national citizenry, or the stories of kings and queens and encourage more "higher order thinking" We need to have more teachers swing open those virtual Smithsonian and the British Museum archives for their students and conducting their own conversations with experts and fellow students so they can discover for themselves that the past is never completely past and the future still open. Given the kind of prestige that Ferguson brings to the current debate it seems that we may just be ready to take this leap.