Whither the crucial teaching of history?

2018-06-17 10:09

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The History Ministerial Task Team (MTT) report, which was released on May 31, is a welcome intervention in the educational terrain. It is gratifying for dedicated history teachers to hear Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announce that she is under “political pressure to deal with the teaching of the discipline of history”.

She stated publicly that teaching history in schools should not be part of a propaganda exercise for any government, but that it should be rooted in the disciplinary practices and conventions of those who have been inducted into the skills of this complex craft.

In particular, the report emphasises that the teaching of history should aim to impart critical skills to pupils to enable them to think for themselves about history and about the great issues of our century – from an African and a global perspective.

It is only through the effective teaching of history that our young citizens can understand the nature of the political, social and economic world we have inherited, and what the battles for human rights in South Africa mean in the long term. A major aspect of the political agendas of those who opposed apartheid was the call for the liberation of this field of knowledge from the oppressive ideological agendas of the apartheid state.

And it was widely recognised that our national history could be adequately understood only if it was set against the backdrop of world history – particularly in relation to the 20th century. That is not to disregard the importance of a comprehensive knowledge of African history – but it is to stress the need for that history to be understood in a global context.

It is only in the history class that young people can come to understand the complexity of our past(s), and to engage in a debate about the meaning of freedom and citizenship in the new South Africa. Yet, to date, we have failed to provide the educational climate or resources for that dream to be realised.

Despite a great deal of rhetoric about progressive methodologies for teaching history to children from the era of outcomes-based education to the present, we are still trapped in classroom methodologies that emphasise rote learning and the search for a heroic history that seeks to support nationalist, ethnic, or classist or gendered agendas in the classroom.

We have not really begun to promote the idea that school history should be about teaching young people to think critically about the past – and the present.

The MTT report gives us hope that this is now to be the aim of the department.

A progressive vision of school history must ensure that we are able to provide maximum opportunities for critical thinking and we must ensure that our teachers are adequately equipped for this formidable task. The personal politics of teachers must be kept out of the classroom. Every effort must be made to acquaint senior students with the debates and contests that characterise our history, and help them to explain in their own terms how to construct arguments for or against particular points of view in light of available evidence.

As Professor Linda Chisholm noted in a recent article, the supply of well-qualified teachers is an immense problem in itself. Since most trainee history teachers studying at our universities do not get to study in the history department, there is a problem with the level of skills they acquire. Many teachers who conduct classes in history are not qualified to do so.

There is some idea that it is sufficient for student teachers to do courses on history within the history methods section of the faculty of education, under the assumption, it would seem, that what happens in the history classroom is something different to what goes on in the university’s history department. This should not be the case.

So it is important to grapple with the challenge of raising a new generation of history teachers who have a sufficient critical grasp of their discipline as a necessary condition to achieving the goals set out by the MTT and the minister.

It seems as if the key issues under consideration in the MTT project are that there is a need for history to be a compulsory subject in high school and for a change in the content to ensure that it reflects an African perspective. The key elements that are absent and that are to be found in much literature on this history education in the years since World War 2 and under the tutelage of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation are the aims and purposes of history in school.

The broad consensus of experts in the area is that the promotion of specific national(ist), religious, ethnic, cultural or classist agendas is to be resisted at all costs.

The attempt by the state to capture the content of school history and use it as a means to promote specific ideological or party agendas also has a bad history. Most importantly, it can in the end lead only to the alienation of the best students from the subject.

We have adequate evidence of this from our own apartheid past. The National Party government always complained that not enough pupils took history at high school. They did not ask themselves why.

It is therefore encouraging that the MTT report makes a commitment to a review of the field and to the teaching of history as a critical exercise that aims to teach young people to think for themselves within the context of a body of knowledge that provides an essential foundation for life in the modern world.

What I did find disturbing was that there is no indication that the MTT investigated what goes on in history classes in schools now. There is no “voice” of history teachers. Indeed, it appears that the SA Society for History Teachers was not formally involved in the exercise. Surely educational reforms can be effective only if there is buy-in from the teachers on the ground?

- Kallaway is emeritus professor of education at the University of the Western Cape and a former Joint Matriculation Board examiner of history

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