The idea that what is taught in history lessons should be relevant to pupils’ lives is a longstanding one. It has been used to advocate teaching the history of the twentieth century, social history, and more of what is rather clumsily called ‘women’s history,’ or Black history, or LGBT+ history. One of the great criticisms of the sort of history which is disparaged as ‘kings & battles’ is that it lacks this quality of ‘relevance’: most history teachers have seen much of what we do dismissed as exclusionary stories about ‘dead white males.’
I do agree that part of our responsibility as history teachers is to do our bit in explaining to the next generation how our country, and our world, got to be the way it is. Is that what’s meant by ‘relevance’? If so, then yes, I’m all for it. There are, I think, lots of things which our children should leave our schools knowing, and just because we can’t expect to agree on just what those things are doesn’t mean that we just throw our hands up and say ‘it’s impossible to decide, so forget it.’ This, for what it’s worth, is Niall Ferguson’s version. (I enjoyed the whole thing, but his list of twenty significant historical subjects takes just over a minute to listen to.) This stuff is relevant, because an understanding of it is essential to an understanding of the modern world.
But when history teachers are urged to make our subject relevant, this isn’t usually what’s meant.
So what’s wrong with social history? What’s wrong with women’s history, or Black history, or LGBT+ history?
I’m not wholly convinced that I understand just what their advocates would like to happen in my classroom.
Do they mean that pupils should learn about Abbess Hilda of Whitby, Queen Elizabeth I or Emily Wilding Davison? Okay, that shouldn’t be too difficult.
Should a course on Roman Britain include a reference to those black soldiers who were stationed on Hadrian’s Wall? Should a course on the Victorians refer to Mary Seacole? Should pupils who study the First World War know who Walter Tull was? No problem.
When we talk about mediaeval kingship, should we talk about the allegedly homosexual behaviour of William Rufus & Edward II? When we talk about twentieth-century espionage should we talk about Alan Turing & Guy Burgess? Quite happy with that.
Is it important that, whenever pupils encounter an historical era, they learn about what life was like for ordinary people? Sure.
When we do that, should I use concepts like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘kyriarchy’ to explain how & why a majority of people have been marginalised by their oppressors?
(See, I know all the terminology…)
Actually yes, at least to some extent. I think that an exploration of the legal inequalities of mediaeval society is an essential part of studying that period. I think pupils should learn about slavery, and colonialism; and to understand slavery and colonialism I think it’s essential that they understand the attitudes of those who were part of those historical phenomena, and the power imbalances that maintained them. Any course on the campaign for women’s suffrage which does not look at the way that social mores, and the law, worked against the interests of women as a group, is an unsatisfactory survey. (A good survey would of course cover how different women were affected by these forces in different ways.)
I expect they’d agree with me that a history curriculum in which (say) women appear, briefly, experience discrimination, and then disappear, would be unsatisfactory. But a history curriculum in which (say) gay people appear, briefly, experience discrimination, save the world anyway, and then disappear, doesn’t seem to me to be much better. I’m afraid I don’t trust this sort of thing: stories which are designed to advance an ideological case make for very bad history.
But would this sort of thing be more ‘relevant’ anyway?
I don’t think so. Do twenty-first century teenage girls find that they can somehow relate to an early mediaeval nun, while the life of an early mediaeval monk is so alien as to be utterly irrelevant? Do black boys really identify with black junior officers on the Western Front while the experiences of white junior officers are just too far from their own lives as to make any attempt to learn about them futile?
Well, in that case I really do wonder if there’s any point in school history. It may be that the twenty-first century girl prefers learning about abbesses to learning about abbots, but she really shouldn’t be encouraged to kid herself that she somehow understands women who lived hundreds of years ago just because she’s female. I see the appeal of Tull’s story, especially for a young black boy, but if he really thinks he has some special insight into Tull’s life because of their shared ethnicity … well, he’s wrong, and we shouldn’t encourage him to think that he’s right.
Look, I know I’m the most privileged person on the internet. I understand that there is a school of thought that says that yes, people – children especially – need to feel like people in the past were somehow ‘like them’ to be able to engage with their stories. I can’t feel it myself, but then – of course – I wouldn’t. As it happens I think the stories of Tull and Christina of Markyate (to pick one of many) are fascinating and deserve a place on the curriculum, and that Tull’s blackness and Christina’s femaleness are part of what makes them remarkable.
But that doesn’t make them relevant in any meaningful sense. Indeed, the more we persuade ourselves that they are relevant, the more wrong we are, and an attempt to understand what it was like to be a mediaeval nun, or an officer of the Great War, which starts on the basis of shared gender or ethnicity, is unlikely to be historically fruitful.