Waving the white flag for history risks a self-fulfilling prophecy

2nd October 2009 at 01:00

Recent debates on the teaching of history imply a subject under attack and on the defensive with claims that it is in danger of being merged into a kind of humanities "blancmange" ("History has done a bunk. Now to save it ..." September 25). History seems to be disappearing as a separate subject as children's needs and diverse identities are emphasised instead.

As a teacher of history and head of humanities in a south London comprehensive where history has expanded at key stage 3 and 4, I have been struck by the defeatist tone of much of the writing and analysis. It seems that one of the oldest tricks in the historical imagination - the self-fulfilling prophecy - is passing unchallenged.

Indeed, it could be argued that such a prophecy could be applied to any number of subjects, not only history, that have been re-invented in the past 12 years by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority as little more than skill and assessment-based groupwork.

Critics and commentators appear in love with something about history, but have not always been clear since their own school days what that something is. They have been keen to offer insights into making it more relevant and accessible to today's children's "needs". In last week's TES one critic even suggested using fairy tales as well as a broad brush. She was not wrong. But she probably forgot that imaginative views in education are today rebutted or smothered technically. They are rarely actually discussed.

In fact, it sometimes seems as if the whole of education has shifted to imposing techniques of behaviour and pedagogy, such as assessment for learning, instead of critically evaluating all approaches to education. Teachers of an older approach (sometimes seen as unfeathered dinosaurs) have, admittedly, hardly made a convincing case for history as a disinterested means to find the truth based on a passion for the past.

However, the more problematic issue staring at all teachers is: what have they actually made a case for educationally in the past few years apart from pay? Try having a debate about "why are we really here educationally" in today's staffrooms.

One key problem is that the universal aspiration for a democracy of the intellect expressed through comprehensive schooling has itself been defeated in schools and Parliament. And children - and perhaps their teachers and counsellors - are in danger of being taught to learn to love themselves more than the world.

What should the children's "needs" be from history? The same as they always were, not something unique: to know the truth about power in order to speak to it. That's history for you, peering through the humanities and government blancmange - or the fog of war - to get to the truth underneath. No wonder it needs defending.

Mark Taylor, Head of humanities and history teacher, New Cross, south London.

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