The postmodern, intellectual left is guilty of a horrible mistake.
It is reasonable to raise questions about a jingoistic, kings-and-queens, whig history; a version of history that paints a picture of inevitable progress towards ever more liberty and enlightenment. Such histories can and have been used as state propaganda. When citizens of a democracy go to vote, or when the population of an autocracy decides whether to rise up against their oppressor, they do so with some notion of history in mind. If you can manipulate that notion, you have a chance of exercising control.
So the intellectual left have been skeptical, but this skepticism has not been aimed at the contents of the curriculum, it has been aimed at the whole project of curriculum. In rejecting a version of history, they have rejected the concept of history. ‘Whose history?’ is the cry when E. D. Hirsch suggests a common curriculum. Instead, through critical pedagogy, students should be taught to question everything and everyone and to ask, ‘In whose interests is this claim made?’
Which is the mistake.
Asking questions gets you nowhere unless you can answer them and that requires knowledge. But you can’t just look all of that up. If you have never heard that there was a Suez crisis in 1956 then you won’t look it up. And if nobody ever told you that Mohammad Mosaddegh was overthrown by a coup orchestrated by the British and U.S. secret services then you won’t look that up either. Yet both understandings are essential if you want to think critically about the decline of the British Empire, the politics of oil, the Iranian revolution and the current situation in the Middle East.
No decent history curriculum would neglect Nazism and the Second World War. This is clearly a period of vital importance, culminating as it does with the abomination of the holocaust. Every child should know about this. However, the role of Western powers in this story, although often treated critically, is essentially one of resisting a great evil.
Students who learn about the Second World War should also learn about the scramble for Africa and the gluttonous rush to steal its resources. They should learn about Cecil Rhodes and his dash for diamonds, carving up great swathes of the continent as it suited him. And yes, they should perhaps learn about Suez and Mossaddegh. This would equip them with the critical thinking capabilities to see through some of the bogus arguments of politicians.
I have only learnt colonial history as an adult, through the happenstance of picking the right books from the shelf in the bookshop. So this is where the left should have fought its battle. It should have made a stand against a parochial view of history and argued for the inclusion of key ideas and events that would act as a warning against future folly.
By declaring a plague on history itself, they have succeeded only in denuding the curriculum of knowledge. School children have ended up studying a whiggish greatest hits. Generations have been lost to an historical perspective that they could use to call leaders to account. As a result, they are more susceptible to the lure of demagogues.
We need a knowledge-rich curriculum. The question, ‘Whose history?’, should be the subject of ongoing and vigorous debate. The intellectual left should be contesting this debate rather than leaving their space vacant.
Because when you leave your space vacant, someone will fill it. Meet Kevin Donnelly, for instance. While making an argument about the importance of knowledge that is essentially correct, he slips in this line about Western civilisation:
“…the curriculum is awash with references to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, culture and spiritual values with minimum reference to the benefits and value of Western civilisation and the importance of the Enlightenment and Judeo-Christianity.”
History should not be teaching ‘the benefits’ of anything because it is an academic discipline, not an infomercial. As western education systems continue to stagnate in their performance, politicians and voters will look for alternatives and it is the ideas of people like Kevin Donnelly that will come to define these alternatives.
Is that what the left wants?