Earlier today, I read an interesting thread on Twitter. One tweet in particular caught my eye: twitter.com/danlyndon/status/1307694632600571904.
Now, before I write anything else, I should say that I’ve learnt a lot from @danlyndon; if you’re a history educator and you do not follow Dan, you really should. His 20+ year body of work speaks for itself. Dan’s resources can be found on this blog (www.blackhistory4schools.com) and in past and future editions of Teaching History (www.history.org.uk/publications/categories/teaching-history).
Nevertheless, I’ll always find his – and some other leading members of the UK history ‘community’s’ – new stance regarding the ‘construct of history’ confusing.*
Every time I read tweets along these lines, I keep coming back to this question: is there – and has there ever been – a single, coherent ‘construct[ion] of history’?
Over the last month or so, I’ve really enjoyed reading Toby Green’s A Fistful of Shells; before I’d read it, I didn’t know much about griot traditions or the complexities of ‘pre-colonial’ West Africa. This year, we will be adding an unit of work based around it to our school’s Year 7 curriculum. I would recommend that all teachers read A Fistful of Shells, or at least the freely-available A Level online textbook that Green has also written (www.africankingdoms.co.uk/online-e-book).
Yet, after finishing Green’s book, I’m now even more sceptical than ever about ‘othering’ African (or Asian or indigenous American) oral traditions, or suggesting they are set apart from ‘our’ construct of history – as if such a coherent thing exists. Surely, the point is that griots and the like are history makers? They are ‘doing’ history, and we should take their efforts and methods seriously.
All places have oral traditions and material cultures, and they are worth studying. The reality is that more and more academics (influenced by the ‘cultural turn’) and lay historians across the world have been taking oral history seriously for decades; works like Svetlana Aleksievich’s bestseller The Unwomanly Face of War (1985) come to mind here.
As far as I can tell, the ‘constructs of history’ argument that seems to be gaining traction in England rests on some odd assumptions about the state of history in 2020. It seems to imagine: that the only people who write history are Niall Ferguson and the long-dead Hugh Trevor-Roper (they aren’t); that historians only use textual archives (they don’t); and that people only write Whig political history (they don’t).
Now, if people argue that griots, oral and cultural history do not have any place in the classroom, then yes – please challenge them. Explain why these views are prejudiced and wrong.
For what it’s worth, one cannot use the ‘disciplinary’ argument to overlook these modes of history making, as many academics are interested in oral histories and material cultures. In the past, I was certainly guilty of projecting an imagined, 1970s caricature of academic history writing as the Gold Standard that school history should strive to replicate.
So, in this moment of thinking about the whats, whys and hows of school history, let’s try and be precise in our analysis; let’s not ignore great works of history and historians, or adopt terms that do not hold up when probed and poked. It is easy to talk about ‘the entire construct of history’ and question its suitability in 2020. This all sounds worthy, and comes from a desire to improve history education. But there are two problems with this approach.
1. It risks othering, exoticising or orientalising ‘non-traditional’ forms of history-making.
2. This single ‘construct of history’ doesn’t exist.
In a rare instance of consistency regarding my views on education, I still stand by the ideas of CLR James and Edward Said, which I quoted in this (much better) blog back in May. A curriculum about a ‘shared human heritage’ – that still sounds pretty good to me.
* (Scare quotes are deliberate.)