14 October 2020, The Tablet

What does teaching ‘good history’ look like?


What does teaching ‘good history’ look like?

Pupils at Holy Family School in Walthamstow, north-east London


Students and educators at Catholic schools and universities are shaping teaching so that it better reflects the lives of their students

Deciding what is taught in schools and universities has always been a political question. It has become particularly urgent this year following the dramatic events in the United States and in the United Kingdom in the aftermath of the killing in police custody of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.

At the protests that followed, which took place at the height of the coronavirus restrictions on mass gatherings, there were demands for an end to structural racism and all its ­symbols. After the statue of slaver and phil­anthropist Edward Colston was tipped into the harbour in Bristol, Marvin Rees, the mayor of the city, called for conversations “informed by good history” to create better understanding and less emotion.

But what does “good history” look like? Is there a way of teaching the past that avoids partisan and anachronistic cherry-picking of heroes and villains and supports critical engagement with the present? These are the sorts of questions raised by those who argue that the curriculum should decentre Europeans and their descendants in settler colonies and make room for those of Asian, African and other minority voices.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) is now a global concern with its own merchandising and symbols, including “taking the knee” to show solidarity with the campaign to end police violence, but it is by no means the first movement to demand changes to the way schools and universities teach. In the 1990s, the language might have been different but the message was very similar. Education professionals called for an “inclusive” curriculum that gave proper attention to the experience and voices of women as subjects and creators of knowledge. Then came calls for other groups to be brought to the centre and for teachers to acknowledge the cost of European colonialism.

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