An historic mistake

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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?


27 thoughts on “An historic mistake

  1. John Pierry says:

    This is probably the reason why so many non-Indigenous Australians grow up not asking questions about the horrors of what happened to Indigenous Australians (some have reported hearing comments like “What do you mean, ‘massacres’?”).

    In a “knowledge-rich” curriculum, you always have to decide “which knowledge” to leave out.

    And Greg, for some reason the comments from my other email address aren’t getting through.

  2. John Pierry says:

    it is the ideas of people like Kevin Donnelly

    “Ideas”. Yep (pffft).

    “An historic mistake”. Hooray! Correct use of the indefinite article with “historic”!!

  3. David F says:

    There’s also the damned social studies curriculum that plagues primary and middle schools in the US–the old “pick a culture, learn about life there and make a poster” nonsense. By the time the students get to secondary school, they have little to no content knowledge unless their parents have encouraged them to read on their own (and most do not).

  4. bjrooney says:

    While I think that you generally hit home in your analysis, on this I am afraid we must part (respectfully) company. I will caveat my reply by saying I am merely a maths teacher, not a history teacher, so I am outside my area of expertise. If my analysis is flawed as a result, then I can only apologise.

    The heart of your argument is that without domain-specific knowledge, it is not possible to think critically. On that I am lock-step in agreement. But you then suggest that “the left” has declared “a plague on history itself.” Perhaps within the domain of history teaching, this leftist plague is well-known, but some evidence would help. If you want me to think critically about your argument, I need the facts to do so.

    I am not aware that anyone is saying we shouldn’t teach historical “facts” (let’s not go too far down the rabbit hole of what a “fact” is). However, it seems entirely reasonable, and well within the domain of good historical practice, to question the validity of the historical record, to ask who wrote it and why; to ask, as you decry, “In whose interests is this claim made?” Many Turkish history books don’t mention the Armenian massacre. Japan’s wartime role in Korea is skimmed over. History is not an uncontested record. I am reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s excellent TED talk on the danger of a single story. Without such questioning, a single story is all we have.

    You say that “If you have never heard that there was a Suez crisis in 1956 then you won’t look it up.” Is this not a strawman argument? I am not aware anyone is saying that students shouldn’t be told there was a Suez crisis in 1956. Rather what they are being asked to do is to question the official narrative of the crisis. As we know, until relatively recently that narrative missed out the collusion between Israel and France and Britain.

    The only reason not to include the Suez crisis would be the relentless pressure on the timetable. If that is your argument, then is that a “left vs right” argument?

    I am fortunate to operate in the of realm mathematics where truths are a priori. Historical “truths” must always be, at best, a posteriori. Questioning them seems to be the stuff of history.

    As I say, if I have misunderstood your argument, then I can only apologise.

    • The issue with the left in terms of history is simply that it has nothing to do with history and everything to do with further a poltiical and social agenda which is anti-western and anti-capitalist while steadfastly ignoring the reality of the far left in history. Historical periods and events are there to be used as weapons not as something to be studied. The purpose of teaching colonialism is so that people will react against the British state not a means of understanding it.

      Coming from an Indian background, and having learnt about the worst massacres and all evil aspects of the Empire, I was still provided with a balanced perspective about British rule over time and the results of it. My mum was taught by those who grew up under the Raj and thus had first hand knowledge of it.

      I don’t believe the left’s agenda is to teach what was missing previously or to give a similar balanced view, it is to replace it with their own version and narrative for their own ends.

      The irony of people who support an ideology that itself has murdered millions around the globe is not lost on me.

      By all means teach the facts and reality and bring in different perspectives but in order to be a good historian one needs to engage with the interpretations and evaluate them in light of the evidence. This is not the left’s agenda and one of the many reasons why I no longer show any support for it.

      • bjrooney says:

        Thank you for your considered reply. What would be helpful here would be some examples of this anti-historic plague. Like I say, I am outside my area of competence, so if this is a well-established fact then apologies for my ignorance.

      • I thought I had above – I wrote about Steele’s take on it here:

        The ahistoricism comes from taking episodes of history to construct a narrative that masquerades as revealing the truth while in fact it suffers from all the same issues as every other interpretation.

        The way that race theory is projected backwards and so called examples found among peoples who had no concept to match it is a prime example – hence Greeks/Romans/ Elizabeth I can be accused of racism despite no concept of scientific racism existing. The whole idea that “white history” was taught in the UK to BAME children on purpose as a means of making them feel inferior is a another example. The evidence would point to ignorant/racist stereotypes existing that simply didn’t go challenged (because why would they when so few ethnic minorities existed in the UK until the 1950s). Yet the fact that there was no intent involved nor the fact that things changed rapidly is acknowledged.

        The whole point of deconstructionism is to “find” the racism or sexism in events/people, etc, it’s there as far as they are concerned one just has to find it and then highlight it. “Lecturer” activists do not see their role as developing critical thinking, they have taken it on themselves instead to create activists – this is openly going on in university departments in Western countries.

    • John Pierry says:

      What you are saying sound very reasonable, BJ. I also think there’s too much of people jumping to a “left vs right” argument, with some wild accusations out there about “The Left” being the mortal enemies of history – with no evidence to prove it. And as for “The Left” supporting an ideology that has “murdered millions” – well, that’s hyperbole beyond the realms of reasonable comment …

      • Tom Burkard says:

        Those of us who’ve been around for a while can recall student lodgings plastered with posters of Mao and Che. The left may well have drawn back from their support of the odious communist regimes of the past, but it’s hardly “hyperbole beyond the realms of reasonable comment” to suggest that the left’s current ideology has nothing in common with its predecessors’.

  5. I agree it would be good for Greg to provide some examples.

    I’ll take this example as it was one of the most bizarre to me.

    Math is one of the subjects taught with the least deference to history. Compared to topics like Chemistry where it is basically taught in historical order with last years ideas being tossed as they you learn what replaced them or subjects such as psychology where the emphasis is on who figured out what and then who figured out what was wrong with that.

    Yet someone wants to make the teaching of its history part of the big problem with math.

    Maybe it would be worth doing a better job of highlighting that many cultures contributed to the development of modern mathematics. But what if some culture made little contribution how should those people feel about math today? Maybe the idea that it was a few Egyptians, Arabs, Indians and one German and one Englishman and downplaying anything but the basic timeline is a better way to make sure no one feels culturally excluded.

  6. Tempe Laver says:

    Evidence in in the Australian curriculum. The main concerns are with inquiry skills rather than the acquisition of knowledge. History is “naturally” a chronological subject and should be taught in a sequence (starting at the beginning) rather than merely “dipping” toes into the water of different periods or pushing an “expanding horizons” curriculum where the focus is on the individual and their personal history (family) or the own city/town rather than an ancient civilisation.

    World history is neglected because it’s viewed by the left as too toxic. They can’t present truths because they don’t believe facts exist beyond social construction, so everything can be challenged. While there isn’t anything wrong with debating the facts, to teach history properly we need to accept that there is some common truth around what happened in past events. Some will be contentious and some will not. For those that are, this can be mentioned and alternate views given, but by & large we need to settle on an accepted account that should be in our textbooks and that our teachers can learn and teach and it shouldn’t be politically motivated.

    I will give you an explicit example of one of the many problems. Both my daughters are at high school. One of my daughters studied Ancient Rome and the next semester The Middle Ages. She is now studying the First WW. The Aust. curriculum gives the individual teacher/school the right to make the decision on what they teach. I think there were 4 choices are offered in yr 7, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome or Ancient China. So my daughter skipped Egypt and Greece and went straight to Rome. A large part of their assessment for Rome was to put on a play, make a diorama, make a speech etc. For The Middle Ages all they seemed to do was concentrate on The Plague (because they think death & gore are more interesting to children, most likely) and were assessed on their knowledge and understanding by making a poster! My daughter did a nice job (she’s not bad at design and art) by drawing a big rat, stuck on paddle pop sticks for crosses and drew some nice illustrations. Others brought in jars filed with “herbs”, I’m guessing demonstrating that they had read that sometimes they used herbs to ward off the plague. So in other words it didn’t really matter how much they knew about history but were assessed on their speaking/acting skills and their artistic skills, or, in the case of the jar, on absolutely nothing!

  7. John Pierry says:

    For the sake of historical accuracy, it would be instructive to hear a right of reply from your child’s teacher, to get the other side of the story.

    • Tempe Laver says:

      You don’t need to hear from my child’s teacher to read the Aust. history curriculum and to know that inquiry learning is lauded and that skills are favoured over knowledge. I’m sure all parents have horror stories of how their children have been assessed. I’ve heard many and I could share many more.

      • John Pierry says:

        The Australian Curriculum is right here and it doesn’t back up those claims of “skills over knowledge”:

        You have made disparaging claims about your child’s teacher’s skills and ability to do their job. Considering Greg’s post is about history and how it can be taught, I think it is extremely pertinent to bring up “more than one point of view” and challenge your view as being one-sided: you do not have privy to the teacher’s staff / curriculum meetings where these things are discussed; and you have not witnessed the classroom first hand. At the very least, have the courtesy to let the teacher have right of reply.

        Provide links to support your argument or stop bad-mouthing teachers, please.

      • Chester Draws says:

        John: have you not had a child do Social Studies? The ludicrous assessments they give are one of the more taxing experiences for parents. Up there with “title pages” for science.

  8. Tempe says:

    How can I do that? These teachers are doing what is required of them. I am not bad-mouthing teachers, I’m bad mouthing a knowledge-light curriculum and inquiry based teaching. Stop bad mouthing me by suggesting I am lying.

    • John Pierry says:

      The word I used was “disparaging”. I also referred to “more than one point of view”. The fact that you swung straight to the word “lying” speaks volumes to me: specifically, the word “projection”.

      And yes, I have had a child doing Social Sciences and haven’t had the experiences you describe.

  9. Tempe says:

    In addition, did you read your link to the AC? Almost all consists of inquiry questions and capabilities with a smattering of knowledge. Did you notice that there is a choice as to what you study and that the other areas are negleccted as a result?

    • Tempe Laver says:

      And, of course, the obligatory poster with it’s pretty illustration. Wouldn’t it be better to sit an exam were the student answered knowledge-based questions?

  10. Looking at John’s link there are what you might want. Examples of written work done in class based on a weeks study of relevant material.

    Click to access Year_8_History_Portfolio_Satisfactory.pdf

    But one example uses a Venn diagram. It would be helpful if the notes on the Venn diagram mentioned the complete waste of time spent shading it as important to give as feedback to the student.
    It is that sort of thing I think that people are referring to.

    A Venn diagram is probably a poor choice for the example given – it works well when you are making a point about the relative magnitudes of a set intersection or highlighting a key common issue but for this sort of textual list it just makes it hard to read.

    The end result is someone ticked a box – used a Venn diagram rather than worrying about the quality of the content verses the presentation. (Eg. Knights as English rather than French or Norman or something else more accurate.)

    Yes it is only one example but the complete lack of criticism of it as a wasted effort sends the wrong message.

  11. The examples also seem to have a common theme of completing the write-up as a take home assignment. This seems bad on two fronts. One, it becomes unclear who’s work is assessed. Two, there is no requirement to be able to recall anything.

    It reminds me of the Ontario math curriculum which states students must be able to multiple but allows the use of calculators as one way to do arithmetic.

    I think it is a fair criticism of the curriculum docs at that link that they in no way make it clear that anyone must be able to recall any knowledge. There is no requirement to remember anything.

    John if you can find something that suggests otherwise please point it out.

    An example of the opposite would be the where there is a lot of material on how to reinforce learning that is not forgotten.

    I think that is what people see as missing.

  12. Tempe Laver says:

    Yes, Stan, the recall thing is a very real problem. We need to have it explicitly stated. You will note the focus is on the doing, not the knowing. How can we be sure a student knows something? That must be able to remember it and recall it at a later date. The take home assignments (from my personal experience) ask the student to discover the knowledge for themselves via Google. They don’t require any recall and can easily be written by a parent etc. And those parents who can afford nice costumes and props for their child’s play, or lots of “craft stuff” for their child’s poster, are at an distinct advantage.

    Also, I find these assessment items are problematic in another way. They are bitsy, just like the curriculum. Instead of assessing what the students know about the entire period being studied they hone in on very narrow areas ie a wonder; an emperor, the plague; some Roman invention/innovations. My daughter had a choice for her talk topic. She had to choose Aqueducts, The Colosseum, or Roman roads. Of course all of these are important parts of the Roman Story but they are only a part of it. So yes, it illustrates to my mind that the real focus is not on securing content but on the speech (skills) or design (skills) or writing (skill) rather than actually having a solid understanding of Roman civilisation from beginning to end.

    If you compare our students work to the standard of the students at Michaela College in England then I think we are definitely selling our students short.

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