I’ve sat in several curriculum review meetings in which the topic of the Arab-Israeli crisis was suggested as a possible topic for (I)GCSE.
When I say it ‘was suggested,’ I mean of course that I suggested it; and it will astonish no one to learn that none of my colleagues or bosses agreed with me.
I have, therefore, never taught the Israel-Palestine controversy, and I think that’s unfortunate.
My colleagues and my bosses had several reasons for not wanting to teach the topic. Few had taught it before, so it would involve learning all about it first. This is something which History teachers like to feel sorry for ourselves about, in that ‘no-one-understands-how-hard-we-have-it’ sort of way which makes everyone feel particularly sympathetic towards teachers.
(Are we right to feel sorry for ourselves about it? I can see both sides. On the one hand, learning about a new period of history, which you’ve never studied before, in order to teach it to sixth-form pupils, is pretty demanding. You really can’t just stay one textbook chapter ahead of the kids, not if you’re doing it properly. You need to know much more than they will, and they’ll have to know quite a lot. The payoff is that most of the time it’s so interesting that it’s worth it. Most of the time. I’ll make an exception for the unification of Italy.)
Anyway. There’s that. The history of the State of Israel is also thought to be particularly complicated. This is, I suppose, broadly speaking true. While any topic can be taught to any depth, some topics are easier to learn than others. These can either be particularly gruesome topics (Hitler, say, or Stalin) or particularly tedious ones: it’s not much fun learning about the composition & functions of the Council of the League of Nations, nor about the Aaland Islands Dispute, but they’re pretty simple to teach.
And Middle Eastern history is, of course, controversial, and I understand why a Head of History might prefer not to be handling complaints about why a teacher is an inveterate and irredeemable partisan of the Palestinians.
Even so, I think it’s unfortunate that so few schools teach the topic in depth.
Why? Just because I’m interested in it?
Well, if I’m honest, yes, that’s part of the reason why I wanted to teach it, and it was fair enough therefore for my colleagues and bosses to say ‘well we’re not interested in it, and there are more of us, so tough luck.’
But there’s another reason too. A good reason this time.
Because it’s complicated.
I’m not under any illusions that half a term spent studying the history of the Middle East in the second half of the twentieth century will produce pupils with an encyclopaedic knowledge of every issue surrounding that vast topic. But I would hope that at least a significant proportion of pupils to whom that topic was taught would at least get some understanding that the whole thing is really very complicated.
And no, this doesn’t apply to every historical topic. It could, but it doesn’t. Because the ‘takeaway’ for pupils studying what used to be the staples of Key Stage Four History: Hitler, or Stalin, or the World Wars, or the Cold War, or all of them, isn’t that it was complicated. Versailles was Bad. Kennedy was Good. And although of course we history teachers do our best to draw attention to the shades of grey, Nazism & Communism don’t really lend themselves to nuance. Not for our pupils.
Does it have to be Israel though?
No, it doesn’t. I think understanding that the Middle East is complicated, and that it would be good to try to give pupils an inoculation against arguments which suggest that it’s really very simple. I’d like to think that a decent grounding in the history of that particular corner of Asia would make young people less likely to indulge the glib summaries of those who airily assert that ‘it’s all because of religion.’ (Or colonisation. Or the Grand Mufti. Or the International Judaeo-Bolshevik-Zionist Conspiracy.)
For some time the lack of focus on chronology in the History curriculum has been lamented. Our pupils have no sense of it, so the argument goes, and we should spend more time on it. And I agree. I can remember my parents giving me a big blue hardback book about the history of the Football League. It was a centennial celebration, so it must have been 1988, which means I was nine, and I remember being surprised that in 1888 human beings could be so advanced as to establish a football league: hadn’t we all been apes back then? So you won’t find me saying that knowledge of the chronological sweep of history isn’t important. It is.
But I also think that studying some topics in depth is really very important too.
Including – especially? – those which are politically sensitive? I’m inclined to think so. The British Empire. The Reformation. The Crusades. Yes. Because they were very complex affairs, and we do tend to simplify them. In doing so we get the history wrong, and that’s my main concern, but I don’t think it ought to be controversial to suggest that any political consequences of more people appreciating that these events weren’t as straightforward as they’re sometimes painted would be beneficial.
I’m not generally a believer in the ‘transferable skills’ argument for history. But I do think that someone who has studied the subject ought probably to emerge from having done so as a sceptic. “Hmm,” I’d expect her to say, “but was it – is it – really that simple?” And that, it occurs to me, isn’t a dreadful attitude for a citizen to have.