Thus spake Jenkins
In his short overview, Re-thinking History
(1991), Keith Jenkins has this to say about the appropriate content of History:
In the post-modern world, then, arguably the content and context of history should be a generous series of methodologically reflexive studies of the makings of the histories of postmodernity itself.
Keith Jenkins, Re-thinking History (1991)
It's worthwhile considering what he means.
The obvious point is that, in a world where there are no objective 'histories', historiography – 'studies of the makings of histories' – is a critical element of the proper content of History. A reflexive study, by the way, is one in which the learning dialogue goes both ways – where the student critiques the history, but also learns from it. So Jenkins is saying that a crucial element of History must be what the National Curriculum calls 'interpretations' – understanding and evaluating other historians' interpretations of the past. You will remember that, in a previous blog, I argued that this was a process very similar to evaluating a source and I would guess that (at a simplistic level) Jenkins would agree – those interpretations need 'deconstructing', according to the origin, purpose and motive.
I would also like to draw your attention to the significance of the word 'context'.
Jenkins is not saying that History is only
about studying historiography, though that must be a significant element of it. The use of the word 'context' shows that Jenkins envisages studies of actual historical events and developments. But the inference is that – if such a study is undertaken – it must be undertaken in the context of historiography. Historians who are attempting to form their own interpretations of an historical event must do so in the context of what has been written by historians in the past.
Thus History, for Jenkins, is historiography fore, aft and throughout. In practical terms, as far as the National Curriculum is concerned, this must mean that pupils not only study ‘interpretations/historiography’ as an historical skill, but that when they begin any topic they need to be told about the historiographical context of their study. I must say that I agree.
But I am puzzled by the sting in the tail: ‘studies of the makings of the histories of post-modernity itself
’. Is Jenkins saying that the only histories worth studying are post-modernist histories? If he is, then I would disagree. Pupils need to know about the Whig and Marxist interpretations of history, even if they choose to discount them later. A postmodernist History which studied only postmodernist histories would be incestuous indeed.
Sourcework Skills, or Dennis Shemilt changed my life
Another essential, it seems to me, is that we continue and develop the work we are doing on sourcework skills.
It has become common to criticise sourcework nowadays, and quite a few people are calling for its abolition. Perhaps it is
necessary to put an end to the dreadful, stereotyped sourcework-by-numbers to which GCSE sourcework questions seem to have been reduced.
But I remember attending an INSET session led by Dennis Shemilt on the Schools History Project, and hearing him talk about getting pupils to do real
History instead of just learning facts and stories which we retailed to them, and returning to my school and changing everything
. It was one of the most inspiring talks I had ever heard and it turned my teaching career around entirely and permanently.
In those days, we addressed a much wider range of sourcework skills than the validity and utility questions GCSE churns out today, and the pupils were given a far greater freedom of reply. I can remember spending a long time developing a working taxonomy of sourcework skills.
If sourcework is a meaningless shell of an exercise nowadays, we need to improve it, not to abolish it. And if the pressure-to-perform at GCSE is forcing teachers and boards to ever-more standardised/predictable/’learned’ answers, then perhaps the answer is to place more emphasis on teaching this skill properly at Key Stage 3.
One thing I do know is that, when they come to work on History at sixth form or university, whether they are doing primary research from sources, or reading the works of other historians, the students are going to have
to know about deconstruction, and they must have learned how to evaluate/assess a source or interpretation. Derrida – eat your heart out.
The truths of postmodernism have further implications for the National Curriculum.
In a relativist, multicultural world, postmodernism asserts that there is no such things as objective history, but acknowledges that there will be many ‘histories’ reflecting the beliefs and needs of different communities. In Northern Ireland, for instance, there are three
such histories – one of the Protestant community, one of the Catholic community, and a third, bewildered, outsiders’ tradition documenting the English portrayal of our attempts to intervene between the two sides. There is nothing wrong with the pupils evaluating any of these adopted ‘histories’ and finding them lacking – if postmodernism is right, then they are all
But what the National Curriculum must not
do is to teach the pupils that there is any absolute meta-narrative of ‘our island story’, which is true. A postmodern National Curriculum will acknowledge that there are a whole range of ‘our island’ stories, which focus on different aspects and periods of the past, and which construct different meta-narratives and espouse different interpretations.
Postmodernism as the essential facet of History
Jenkins argues that – whether we like it or not – we live in a postmodernist world, and I tend to agree with him. Anyone who is even marginally involved in politics, culture, religion or education knows that we face a world where there are no absolutes any more – where there is no maxim that is unchallengeably true.
I am sure the government would wish it not so, but we live in a multicultural society, at least in the sense that it encompasses a large number of different cultures, but also in the sense that we no longer ‘look down’ on cultures that are different to our own. We inhabit a society where, even if we ‘believe’ one religion, we have to face the fact that there are many, many people who ‘believe’ their own religion more than we do ours, and that there is no proof that we are right and that they are misguided.
For people who need the old certainties to give their life meaning, such developments can be deeply unsettling. Towards the end of its term in office the Labour government commissioned a number of polls which discovered that many white British people felt that Britain didn’t feel like Britain any more. Religious belief has plummeted as liberal vicars have struggled to explain to their parishioners why they should still go to church whilst acknowledging the validity of the Hindu temple round the corner; if we’re all going to heaven anyway, what is the point? And I am sure that, if we were able to go back and interview Elton and Marwick, we would find that – at a visceral level – they felt the same about History. What is the point of studying History when we cannot get at the truth?
It strikes me that this is a particularly shallow and sulky response to the post-modernist challenge. So we have established that an historical interpretation is an outcome of a particular cultural and ethical opinion. So what! Do we not meet opinions everywhere
in life? As a Christian Councillor whose day job was that of a teacher, I have often joked that I had chosen three life-areas (religion, politics and education) where everyone thought they knew better than me. Every teacher reading this has experienced going down the pub and being treated to someone’s prejudices on education.
Did they despair and resign? Of course not! Because they knew that, essentially, their pub-expert was talking out of his behind, and that – as someone actually doing the job – their opinion was better-founded, and they had more right to declaim, than he. Hopefully, they were aware at the same time that their experience was flawed and limited, and that they too did not know the whole truth.
Why is it any different in History? So every interpretation is a flawed and limited individual opinion! Wow – now there’s something we didn’t know … not! Of course every interpretation is limited and flawed – that’s why it needs me to come along, with a fresh approach, and a more detailed investigation, and new evidence, and my own personal ‘take’, and come up with a new, better-founded, more valid interpretation … an interpretation for today
Postmodernism does not remove the ‘point’ from historical research, it makes it essential, as we seek always to improve our understanding of the past (knowing that, in time, someone else will come along and improve on our offering). Indeed, it is the possibility of attaining ‘truth’ which stultifies and ultimately invalidates the study of History. Because, if there is a ‘truth’ out there – an absolute which we can tell all our children is ‘it’ – it truly does remove the point in bothering with History. There would be, indeed, no future in History.
I am sure that messrs Gove and Schama want to help History, but if they stop History being a melting pot of different ideas and interpretations – if they stop it being a liberal, multicultural, anarchic discipline – they kill it.
For me, the joy if History is that it truly is one, protracted, never-ending row. And for so, so many reasons, that is exactly what makes it the essential element of a proper education.
John D. Clare