J2H Blogs

The Doing Justice to History Blog

04 Feb 2014

How should we be campaigning for ‘justice to history’? We have chosen to set up services for schools that can provide them with historical enquiries that probe hidden aspects of history, and that engage students in dialogic learning, rather than presenting them with catalogues of ‘facts’ that they have to store in their minds, for regurgitation in exams or quizzes. The notion of Michael Gove and others seems to be that as long as we all have the same storehouse of key facts about British history, we will have a strong sense of British identity. We don’t believe that for a minute. On the other hand, if young people have had the opportunity to explore a diverse range of historical enquiries from the annals of Britain’s past, they will have been able to connect with many issues that have challenged the British people over the centuries, and those should most certainly include the experiences of people of African descent. It was disappointing to see the campaigns for the insertion of particular Black people into Gove’s ‘core facts’ curriculum of January 2013, because they didn’t challenge the notion that Britain should have a ‘core facts’ history curriculum, just that it should include Black people. Getting Olaudah Equiano and Mary Seacole back onto Gove’s list was not a major victory in securing ‘justice to history’. It was a blow for equality, but why would anyone want to have equal access to a ludicrous enterprise?

Those who deride history lessons today for simply being a series of disconnected topics with no binding logic could consider applying that dictum to Gove’s ‘wisdom’ which seems to be ‘one reactionary statement after another’ with no coherence between them. Certainly his recent utterances about the First World War reflect that. “You (teachers) don’t do World War One properly”, according to the Education Secretary we rely too heavily on dramatisations like Blackadder and Oh What a Wonderful War and so always present the generals as the bad guys. What are we supposed to do? Idolise Haig? Even his contemporaries didn’t do that! If we were to set up an enquiry approach to lessons about Haig and the Battle of the Somme, we would be getting students to understand that there is a debate about Haig and they would be asked to make a decision about him at the end. There is a certain amount to be said for the weakness of many history lessons about the First World War at the moment, because they don’t do justice to history through enquiry, and often present a single lesson on ‘Was Haig the Butcher of the Somme?’ which can easily produce simplistic na├»ve conclusions from the students. We don't want their conclusion to be of some trite ‘hero or villain’ format, but rather show the complexity of different people’s opinions and interpretations across time. That same rigorous historical thinking should be displayed when they undertake enquiries into dimensions of Black history. There is no place for turning Mary Seacole into a saint any more than they did Florence Nightingale in years gone by. It would be unfair on our young people to merely replace flimsy two dimensional analyses of Florence Nightingale or Lord Haig with flimsy two dimensional analyses of Mary Seacole and Walter Tull. So, our campaign ‘to do justice to history’ has no simple slogans or demands, but a set of statements that link together to form a vision of relevant, researched, rigorous enquiries that will empower young people to develop their understanding of their position in time in a globalised multicultural society that is proudly British.