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Paul Martin: Public History is Kids’ Stuff!

2013 March 23
story Island

Still promoting  ‘Our Island Story’ – first published in 1905

Guest contribution from Paul Martin  joint editor of the Public History Reader:

‘Thanks to everyone who attended the Public History Reader book launch on 9th March. I am sorry that health reasons kept me from attending, but thanks to Hilda for some space on her website  I can at least summarise what I would have said.

I wanted to position the Reader in relation to the recent proposals for change in the school history curriculum by Michael Gove, see for example David Priestland’s piece in The Guardian and that of Richard Evans in the Financial Times.

Education secretary Gove, with input from the usual academic suspects  (see, for example, this BBC news item ) has decided that critical thinking and an empathetic approach to the past should be replaced by a Dickensian focus on ‘facts’. ‘National heroes’ and a patriotic vision of the past will be the order of the day and so merrily back to the 1950s and rote learning we shall be expected to trot.

Not to overstate the case, but the Public History Reader in this context I believe becomes something of a weapon of resistance. Alan Rice’s extract on slave memorials in Lancaster for instance, is a testament to what happens when the inconveniences of the imperial past are ignored and later return for justice and acknowledgement. Raphael Samuel’s premise, permeating the Reader, namely  that ‘if history was thought of as an activity rather than a profession, then the number of its practitioners would be legion.’ (p.11)  can also be adapted for schools. For if history was  understood to be a lived experience and hence ‘within’ every one of us, then school children as well as adults would perceive of it as something over which they had some ownership and definition of meaning.  We would see ourselves as descended from such experience, rather than – as Gove and company would have our children believe – seeing history as an anonymously authored body of pre-ordained and transmitted uncontestable facts.

Of course, Gove is hardly unique amongst Tory regressives in this respect. John Major suggested that  May Day might be replaced with ‘Trafalgar Day’ and that a National Museum of British History should be supported to tell the kind of historical narrative that Gove is now re-presenting. Neither thankfully came to pass. To what extent Gove’s proposals are a pro-active attempt to toughen up a national focus in the history curriculum for the Tories in the wake of UKIP’s success at the Eastleigh by-election is also worth bearing in mind.

The dead end that such anti-thinking runs into is grimly demonstrated by the authors of the Reader extract on Guatamala (pp.129-146) where a ‘victors’ history’ is all that is permitted. Rather like the events of WWII as transmitted to Japanese school children, which positioned Japan as the victim nation rather than the aggressor in school text books, a generation of our children would be turned off of history through distrust of the ‘facts’ (and what they avoided discussing) or through sheer indifference.

The Public History Reader then, has much to offer as a counter-offensive to Gove’s simplistic rhetoric. Though over two decades old and adult centered, the basic model used by Rosenzweig & Thelen (pp.30-55) might be easily adapted in schools for eliciting what the past means for school children or ways in which they might consider the past in the present.  Sherry Turkle (pp.157-172) and Dean and Williams (pp.224-232) both present ways in which adults relate material and visual culture to historical meaning through contemporary practice, which can easily be transcribed for a school based project or line of critical understanding of the past on the present.

Essentially, I propose the Public History Reader is a manual for a variety of practical and critical reposts to Gove and co’s top-end down transmission model of a selective and largely uncritical imperial past for schools. Although Mary Seacole has been included, it is seemingly one of the few concessions, or perhaps a sop, to an otherwise entirely Whigish idea of Britain’s past.  Over a hundred years of  history teaching in institutions such as Ruskin College, The National Council of Labour Colleges, Coleg Harlech , Northern College, the Workers Educational Association and elsewhere has enlightened  adult learners of the sanitised version of history they received as a given as school children and empowered them accordingly. We do not want the current generation of school children to have to learn the same hard way later on as well.

It seems to me more important than ever that a ‘talking head’ version of history (singular), should wither away as inclusive histories (plural) become how we understand our relationship with the past and why and how it continues to inform and populate the present. That agendas almost always underlie how and which ‘bits’ of the past are resurrected and reshaped, and indeed written as history thus rendering the past malleable rather than solid, is crucial for all our understanding of what the past is. This fluidity, inclusiveness and rich diversity of the past is the essence of how the ossified version of Gove’s ‘British History’ can be swept away. Public history in general as Samuel’s model of historical practice asserts, gives us all, at any age, a sense of ownership, belonging and a stake in the past and the Public History Reader, I believe, emulates this.’

Paul Martin

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