When History students arrive at university, one of the topics I enjoy discussing with them in seminars is the teaching of History in school. It helps them to think about the purpose of studying History at all and to find some intellectual framework for this new phase of their education. They often turn on their former teachers, probably thinking their university tutor wants to see them recognise and value the new academic demands and freedoms. Interestingly, although few students think of themselves as political, they almost all seem to find they have strong views on Michael Gove’s reforms for British education. For seminar discussions, presentations and debates, they work their way through educational reports, political speeches, opinion pieces from historians and academic texts on the nature of History as a discipline. The conclusion they reach en masse is that the Education Secretary has fundamentally misunderstood what it means to study History.
Yes, History helps us to understand who were are. Yes, History helps us to understand the world – including nation – around us and how it came to be. But studying History does not do this simply by presenting an informative narrative: the story of us. Rather, these first-year History undergraduates insist, this happens most importantly by looking elsewhere. Finding out more about ourselves means we understand ourselves better, of course. But it is the sense of perspective we gain from learning about others that is most important of all. The most powerful lesson from History is a simple one: other worlds are possible.
I spend my time thinking about how we make sense of and present these other worlds in the lecture hall and the seminar room, but I spend less time thinking about how this is done in the school classroom. I’m sure teachers across the globe are right now, as they listen to and read the media commentary on the passing of Nelson Mandela, honing their answers for the inevitable question: “What does this word ‘apartheid’ mean?” But there is another dimension that I hadn’t really considered until I was listening to Milton Nkosi talking about his South African History teacher on BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent:
“It was his job to teach us the heroism of the white Dutch settlers in the seventeenth century. Led by Jan van Riebeeck, they arrived in a boat named the Dromedaris at the Cape of Good Hope, on the southern tip of the African continent. In the middle of this lesson, our teacher, a tall hefty Zulu man with a deep voice, suddenly stopped and whispered to the whole class that there is another man whose name we should never forget. His name was Nelson Mandela. He told us that if we mentioned one word of this conversation he would kill us. This part of the lesson may have lasted only a minute, but it stayed with us forever.”
Teaching History is enough of a challenge for those of us in schools and universities in Britain today, with Mr Gove just the latest politician intent on warping the next generation’s perspective of history to create a heroic narrative of Britain and her Empire. But how much harder when the same dangerous instinct tips over from interference to injustice, when the government seeks not only to impose a nationalistic chronology on young people’s worldview but to actively use a nationalistic racial narrative of a country’s past to silence dissent.
Milton Nkosi’s teacher did not succumb. Instead he found a shortcut to that most important of all History lessons, that other worlds are possible. He found it in speaking a name: Nelson Mandela.