Humanities - Get your facts right

28th October 2011 at 01:00
But are we peddling too many myths in our study of the past?

Michael Gove has made it clear that he wants facts and more facts in the history curriculum. I don't believe he is really a latterday Mr Gradgrind, but he does need to consider what this means. Which facts should we be teaching? And what actually are historical facts? Often I fear that key stage 3 history is little more than the peddling of myths.

History is a living subject with much debate about what is true and what is not. Views change over time and in the light of new evidence, so it is demanding to incorporate the latest research into KS3 history; indeed, it may not even happen at A-level.

This was brought home to me by recent newspaper articles about the causes of the Black Death. It seems rats and fleas are no longer in the frame and it is no longer even certain that the disease itself was actually bubonic, or even pneumonic plague. The research evidence for this included epidemiological study and wills written in the face of imminent death. A telling "fact" is that mortality continued to rise in winter, when fleas could not have survived. Another is that, while black rat skeletons have been found at relevant 14th-century sites, there are not enough of them to account for the rapid and catastrophic spread of the disease. Nevertheless, current Year 7 textbooks claim as "fact" that the Black Death was bubonic plague, spread by fleas that lived on the black rat.

Mr Gove expressed shock that only two figures were named in national curriculum history. In 2006, a new biography of one of these - the freed slave Olaudah Equiano - claimed that he might not after all have been born in Africa, but rather in South Carolina. Does it make a difference? And should teachers be using this information in the classroom?

Even with a central topic such as the First World War, how many teachers are still pushing the line of "lions led by donkeys" and "Haig, the butcher of the Somme", which fly in the face of decades of recent scholarship? Which teachers, unless covering this topic for A-level, have had time to read Mud, Blood and Poppycock by Gordon Corrigan (2003), which takes many of the myths of the First World War and demolishes them?

I would be interested to know what other myths are being peddled as fact. Should academic historians be consulted by textbook publishers? Who would choose the historians? And could those historians agree?

Barbara Hibbert is a history education consultant

What else?


For an eye-catching introduction to the Black Death, try the resources by BarryHEvans and others and tell us what you think. Or try designing an advertisement for apothecary's cures for the plague - see Emily Thomas's PowerPoints and worksheets

In the forums

Teachers discuss what makes a good history lesson - what do you think? In another thread, a newly appointed primary history co-ordinator is looking for advice.

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