Who is History Education for?

Post date: April 16, 2014

Originally published on June 15, 2011 on Teaching the Past: A blog about teaching history in Canada

We often talk about what history education is for – building national narratives, civic responsibility, or even critical thinking skills – but rarely do we talk about WHO history education is for. WHO ultimately benefits, grows, and is strengthened by the narratives we hear, the skills we teach, and the voices we emphasize? Is it the bureaucrats and politicians who have the ultimate say on what the curriculum will look like? Is it the teachers who need to interpret and assess the curriculum efficiently and perhaps even interestingly? Is it the Canadian nation writ large and those who have the power and privilege to maintain their power and privilege? Is it a general Canadian student who is expected to grow up to be a critically questioning, yet respectful, citizen in a changing, but generally unproblematized nation?

Lately I have been thinking about this question of WHO history education is for while I have been gathering data for my dissertation research. I keep thinking about what student-centric history teaching would look like and why it would seem so radical, even in classrooms that are focused on student success. I am very much interested in narratives and the knowledge that gets produced through narratives, so I keep going back to thinking that we as a nation are so tied to certain narratives that we are worried about exploring stories that challenge the narratives that seem familiar and safe. I’m not even talking about curriculum since, from what I know from the Ontario curriculum for example, there is room for interpretation about how the objectives will be met and with what content. So coming back to narratives may seem like a fairly reductive statement for such a large question, but I can’t help thinking that the students I have met – students who are bright and articulate, although perhaps not academically successful – are almost desperately interested in stories that connect to their lives and they just aren’t hearing them.

The strategies the students use to express their dissatisfaction are often resistant in nature and rarely read as being productive to the classroom environment. This is not uncommon to any history educator who has heard history be equated to the MOST BORING SUBJECT EVER, but I rarely come across students who have said that history should completely not be taught. Anna Clarke, who did research in both Australia and Canada, found that students said it was the methods used to teach history that made it seem boring. These findings were also supported by the work of Harris and Haydn in the UK. While methods are a very large part of this question, I don’t think it is the whole answer. I don’t have an answer, I don’t even think I have a real question, but I do have a feeling that that the WHO for history education are not the kids that I have been working with and that this is a shame. These students, students who are racially and economically marginalized, need a past to build on and stories to grow from and they are just not getting them in one of the only places where they would learn history.

So I return to my original question: Who is history education for? And if it is not for the students and their unique needs for the future, then why not?