Remember remember

“The teaching of emotive and controversial history is seriously compromised if pupils do not see history as a subject that is open to debate and argument as they study diferent and competing views of the same events”
TEACH (Teaching Emotive and Controversial History) Report, 2007 Historical Association

I love watching fireworks (except the one blown off course in the high winds the other night which hit the road I was driving on and went off) but every year as they’re set off in the weeks leading up to 5th November I wonder what people are really remembering, if anything at all. I’m not saying Guy Fawkes Night should retain its original meaning. Far from it but it seems as if we’ve reached the point where is has none. Maybe there’s no harm in that but it seems a bit weird to retain the celebration without remembering what it used to mean and why it doesn’t anymore (and shouldn’t). I find myself thinking about the ways the Gunpowder Plot’s roots and aftermath are relevant in today’s world.

Quite apart from its long term significance as a historical event in its own right (the treatment of Catholics before the Gunpowder Plot and the fact that the Plot itself fanned the flames of the religious persecution against Catholics which went on for centuries (and that the celebration itself was later rolled into the calendar of controversial events in Northern Ireland)), it can be compared with and contrasted to the September 11th and July 7th attacks. It makes sense to me that this should be followed up on in schools (not that the opportunity to discuss Ireland was ever taken when I was growing up). Things like comparing and contrasting causes (and international dimensions), the widening of prejudice afterwards, the difference between radical and mainstream, retaliatory attacks on innocent people and how widespread prejudice can increase bullying in schools (how my sides split at anti-Irish bullying when I was at school – all Irish girls pad their bras with semtex, don’t you know) are all things I’d expect older children to be capable of discussing. Celebration of Guy Fawkes Night was mandatory for over two centuries. Today we’re free to form our own opinions but if we aren’t challenging children to think critically their freedom is effectively reduced and prejudices which come from other sources such as family and the media are allowed to grow.

My feelings on torture and capital punishment will be pretty clear frommy last post. When the bald facts of the Gunpower Plot are stated, the fact that Fawkes was tortured is often taken for granted. The school assembly plan provided by the Parliamentary site says:-
“This slide is about the torture, trial and execution of the plotters and Guy Fawkes. The image is of Guy Fawkes signature before and after he was tortured. You can bring to the attention of the children the difference of Guy Fawkes signatures. Additional gruesome facts…”  
Torture and capital punishment aren’t relics of the past. There’s an ongoing ethical debate on both subjects. The right not to be subjected to torture or inhuman and degrading treatment is one of the most important in modern human rights conventions. The British Government was found to have breached this right in relation to IRA suspects and America water boarded Al Qaeda suspects. Some powerful and populous countries have retained the death penalty and national security has been cited to justify killing people without a trial (shoot to kill policies and operations like the American one to kill Osama Bin Laden). Mistakes get made too, like the shooting of Jean Paul De Menezes, throwing up issues of racial profiling in general: the rights and wrongs and risk of error.

It’s also been pointed out in various places that Guy Fawkes has become a symbol to people like the Occupy Movement and Anonymous*.

To be honest, I’m not sure whether schools are meeting my standards of what I think could be done with the annual celebration of Guy Fawkes Night. In 2007 the TEACH Report referred to a number of emotive areas of history, many of which involve the interplay between white Anglo-saxon Protestant (or Catholic before the Reformation) Britain and other races, religions and countries. In the section on Key Stage 1 it said:

“re-telling the story of the Gunpowder Plot is ofen closely allied with the celebrations linked with Bonfire Night. In the current context, it might be appropriate to encourage children to explore motivation more fully and also to question whether Guy Fawkes’ attempts to blow up parliament were justifed and should be celebrated. What other ways may confict be resolved?”

No messing about there. Key Stage 1 and they don’t think it’s too soon to be asking kids to really think about it. The Historical Association’s website has guidance on teaching emotive and controversial topics and it explains:-

” Children are surrounded by puzzling and sensitive occurrences all the time and consequently it is important that teachers support children as they try to make sense of them. Teachers may play important roles in encouraging children to question stereotypes and to recognise alternative viewpoints. History provides opportunities for children to engage with these issues as they hear stories about different people in the past. Research suggests that from an early age children begin to identify with particular communities and may make prejudiced statements (Connolly: 2002). Extending children’s awareness of different viewpoints through history may contribute to children’s developing awareness of different life styles and values.”

After considering various areas where opportunities to teach controversial and emotive topics arise in each Key Stage, the Report went on to consider whether they actually were being taught and how. It concluded in relation to Key Stage 1:

“At Key Stage 1, the events and personalities linked to the schemes of work dominate the curriculum and provide few opportunities for extending pupils’ knowledge of emotive and controversial history. Even Guy Fawkes is not portrayed as a controversial or emotive issue. Traditionally, Key Stage 1 has steered clear of controversial and diversity issues, such as the views of older people.”

In relation to Key Stage 3, the Report said

“There are also those issues which are emotive and controversial because they continue to have general contemporary signifcance or personal resonance for students. Potential examples of such issues from Key Stage 3 include the Crusades, the Partition of India, the Holocaust, the transatlantic slave trade, Irish history and the history of immigration to Britain. In contemporary Britain, where ethnic and cultural divisions occasionally lead to direct interracial violence and where recent events have led to heightened racial tensions, learning about the legacy of Britain’s colonial past and about the relationship between the West and Islam are potentially the most controversial and challenging aspects of the Key Stage 3 history curriculum.”

Modern prejudices are inescapable. Unless we evolve to become a perfect society free from all prejudices, children will be exposed to them. Some will hear things at home (from different angles). Most will see them on tv or through social media (trending topics like the Boston bombing and the Woolwich murder can lead to enormous numbers of unpleasant tweets). Some will be victims of bullying in schools and even by adults outside of school. As a 16 year old middle class sheltered white girl I was shocked the first time a total stranger made a sectarian comment to me (all I’d said was “35p please” – it wasn’t that I didn’t know what was happening in Northern Ireland, I just didn’t expect a middle aged man to blame it on me) but some kids will be exposed to that kind of thing on a depressingly regular basis. In addition, some teenagers will be stopped and searched. In both cases, their parents will probably have experienced similar things.

The Report seemed to suggest that coverage of all such controversial topics was still patchy. I haven’t found evidence one way or the other to tell me how much has changed since 2007. Even if I had children their experience wouldn’t necessarily tell me much because a lot seems to come down to circumstances in individual schools. Some schools would have been bucking the trend before 2007, some will have improved since then, some won’t. Based on the Report and the fact that the Historical Association is offering CPD content my guess would be that secondary may have seen greater improvements than primary but that’s a guess based on the reasons for avoiding emotive and controversial history which are laid out in the Report.

If teachers or parents reading this have any comments on this post, I’d be interested to hear them (or if anyone’s stuck Gove’s face on the Guy this year). I’m not writing this as an attack on teachers. The pressures related to teaching history come from a variety of sources and it can’t be easy to find a balance. In fact, one reason it was hard to find measured commentary on teaching controversial and emotive topics since 2007 was the media outcry which followed the publication of the Report. The claim that multiple schools were no longer teaching about the Holocaust (and even that it had been dropped from the curriculum entirely) swept through the media and those inaccurate stories are still cluttering up the internet and sending people searching down wrong paths six years later. The Report itself is a case study in how people see what they want to see through the lens of their own prejudices and fears. There are also complaints out there along the lines of “political correctness gone mad”. One site even claimed the Report was anti-Christian, but the guy saying that clearly hadn’t read the report very closely because he claimed that it didn’t classify Irish history as emotive and controversial – it does.

Apparently in 2006, Michael Gove gave the following as a reason for the rise in certain, what you could call, celebrity historians:

“Most of us who take an interest in our country’s past, who harbour a curiosity about our ancestors, who wish to discover what moved them and understand the conflicts of their times, are not searching for reasons to feel ashamed of our culture.”

As a comment on the tv viewing and popular history reading of adults, there’s probably some truth to this although saying they’re looking for something to be proud of would change the balance of the sentence and (I think) be closer to the truth. As something said by the man who’s now our Education Secretary it’s a bit disturbing. The vast majority of us have no real reason to feel ashamed of the mistakes of the past. If we looked at our individual heritage most of us would find that our ancestors were not the ruling elite or the kind of people who made their fortunes in the Colonies, through the slave trade etc. We’d find our own stories of deprivation. Even though I accept it’s true that some adults prefer their dose of history to be simplistic and jingoistic, that doesn’t justify teaching history to the same standard. That’s what I think people who criticise an honest treatment of controversial topics which is sensitive to diversity are really asking for. It seems to me that history (and citizenship lessons) should encourage critical thinking and where controversial and emotive topics are concerned it’s particularly important to encourage independent thought, discussion and empathy. Doing that enables people to think about who we are today, individually and as a society, and who we could become. It also does more than that. It discourages linear thinking. That gives kids skills which can be an enormous advantage later in life in various careers.

Gove’s proposals for a history curriculum which would put far too great an emphasis on British history and seemed to be encouraging an unrealistic picture of the British Empire earlier this year had to be altered. The extent of the outcry against his proposals remained heartening to me as I struggled to find any follow up materials saying whether teaching has improved in this area since 2007 but what ultimately came out of my fruitless task was an acknowledgement that there’s as much controversy over teaching emotive and controversial history as there in within the relevant areas of study themselves.

* and the Million Mask March took place in various cities tonight, of course


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