Robert Peal’s article in the TES on Friday ‘History’s an adventure – don’t cut it short’ left me feeling slightly bemused. In the piece, Peal argues that current history textbooks lack an extended narrative that is detrimental to exciting students about the stories of our past.
You would be hard pushed to find a stretch of more than 200 words that is not broken by a cartoon, a snippet of “source material” or a “funny fact”. The layout often resembles a magazine, not a book, with short chunks of boxed text designed to cater to the supposedly minimal attention spans of today’s pupils.
Moreover, the apparent attempt to link the past to the experience of the students breaks up the power of the narrative. The downfall is due to the changes in post-Imperial Britain, the move towards encompassing historical skills and the growth of ‘irreverent humour’ in the Horrible Histories series. I don’t doubt that there are KS3 textbooks which are poor having seen/used a number of them myself, yet Peal’s argument resides on two assumptions that are troubling. The first is that textbooks are the best way to tell a story and the second is that a particular narrative should be privileged.
I think Peal expects too much from textbooks or does not comprehend their place in the toolkit of a history teacher. They are a resource which the well-trained teacher can use as a basic standard from which they can innovate (teach). There is a form a recognition at the end of the article when he suggests that he uses them to aid planning yet the thrust is that they are the main teaching tool for conveying a story. Due to the National Curriculum (schools who do not have to follow it choose to do so anyway) and the chronological span and flexibility within a single school year, no KS3 book can adequately cover the variety of topics or narratives available even if there is a series like the Counsell, Byrom and Riley books.
The article then uses the work of RJ Unstead at Primary level to showcase how good a textbook can be when there is a focus on stories rather than sources. What is interesting to note is that Unstead’s books were produced at a time when there were no mandated topics to cover (see David Cannadine’s The Right Kind of History for examples of the very general guidance given to history teachers at Primary level). In the absence of useful material, Unstead’s books helped to fulfil a need for a ‘good story’. KS3 books operate in a slightly different atmosphere and I question the suggestion that a series of books, located in a particular time and for a particular purpose, can be the panacea for the complex conditions of KS3 history. This is an anachronism that seems to slip by in the critique of the inexact use of culturally and temporally fixed reference points.
The most worrying aspect of the article comes in the section ‘Back to the old school’. Here, Peal explains why Unstead’s book fell from favour:
From the 1970s, Unstead became a figure of fun, mocked for his earnest stories of derring-do and insufficiently critical take on British history. In 1962 he defended his brand of scholarship: “Whereas England has often acted foolishly or badly, her history shows the persistence of ideals which good men have lived by since Alfred’s day.” This was not a fashionable view in post-Imperial Britain.
The crude linkage between an unbroken narrative of high-minded ideals and the disruptive ‘post-Imperial’ condition seems to suggest that the ‘best’ narrative of collective memory in the public sphere has been lost due to the post-colonial condition. This mourning of a single, linear and progressive narrative in this passage reveals a belief that we (English? British? Western?) learn from our mistakes. I am not so sure of this view when considering the Middle Passage, the treatment of the Mau Mau in Kenya or the racism in society that fuelled Imperial Britain and continues in various guises today. I am not suggesting that these examples, a ‘post-Imperial’ narrative, should replace Unstead’s as the ‘right’ one because the collective memory that we deal with in school classrooms is not a competitive history but a connected one. Examples of the persistence of great ideals are part of our history but there is also the unsavoury and the unspeakably cruel. No textbook can ever capture this depth and this is where the expertise of the teacher, versed in what Michael Rothberg terms as ‘Multidirectional Memory‘, is vital. To deny these parts of our collective memory for the sake of scoring points against a ‘progressive turn’ in ‘post-Imperial Britain’ shows, at best, a naivety about the multicultural society that we live and teach in.
Stories are important for history teaching. They help us to reveal that even though the past is a different place, the human ‘qualities’ of love, desire, greed, hate, hospitality, vulnerability and altruism can be found and this can be used to create a link between the present and the past for our students. Yet we should not forget that in a desire to support a particular story, we miss the complexity of our history and the world around us.