There is an innate beauty and wonder in History. There are times when I enjoy History on a similar level to how I personally enjoy abstract art. Abstract art is something I can only pretend to understand, its deeper meanings are largely locked away to me and yet I enjoy it and find I can make a personal connection with certain pieces. There are times when I enjoy History in this way, immersing myself in the wonder and majesty of past civilisations brings a definite joy. I have my bank of historical facts and value it amongst other knowings that I have clung to. There are also times when I want to understand the why and how of History and to make deep meaningful connections with the present and the future. It is in this way that the study of History has real value and it is this aspect of History as a subject that our students should come to understand. Unfortunately too often History lessons are more about fact finding and the knowledge our students have of the way things were is seldom connected with the way things are or the way things might be in the future.
Historians will argue that through History we learn from our mistakes, that as George Santayana is misquoted as saying ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'
What he actually said was something a little different and he wrote it in 'Reason in Common Sense’ Volume One in a tome titled ’The Life of Reason’ and he is a philosopher and not a Historian so he is talking about ‘Reason' here, not stuff that happened. . . He wrote:
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Ignoring the misunderstanding of what was said and ignoring the racial and cultural elitism in George’s words, (an elitism that perhaps lies at many of the best examples of us not learning from our histories, such as invading lands occupied by so called ’savages’ in the times of western expansionism and colonialism or turning them into impoverished slaves of capitalism in more modern times) does remembering the past prevent us from repeating it?
In this pursuit countless generations of students have studied Australia’s History (or World History), from settlement, to colonisation, exploration and the discovery of gold, then federation and immigration and World Wars and so on to the present. Our hope is that at the end of this protracted journey of learning, they will look back and say ‘Oh, it all makes sense now, the lesson from History is . . .’ BUT they don’t and WE don’t.
If we look honestly at human History it shows that Humans do not learn from the mistakes of our past. A meta-analysis of Human History, starting with the most recent mistakes we have made and going back through time would reveal this. For each mistake we would look for an example of where we have made that same mistake at an earlier time. Where ‘Mistake A’ was preceded by ‘Mistake A1’ and so forth. Few would be surprised to find that for every mistake we have made, there is an example in which the same mistake was made at an earlier date.
Some people might learn from some of their mistakes BUT the historic record shows that Humanity does not learn from its mistakes, Humanity does not learn from its past. There is no evidence that we know how.
Most importantly if the future of History teaching is a continuation of teaching students what our mistakes have been instead of teaching them HOW to LEARN from the mistakes (and success and triumph and progress) of the past, of HOW to APPLY historic knowledge to modern problems nothing will change.
Fortunately things have changed, somewhat. I know many amazing teachers of History who take their students on journeys into the past returning with lessons and powerful learning for their tomorrows. They allow their students to become Historians and hand over the keys to the time machine allowing their students to take charge of the learning. But even for the best their is an excessive demand to negotiate a context within which learning about the past to shape the future is a challenge that is forced to take a back seat.
The recent Review of the Australian National Curriculum by Dr. Kevin Donnelly and Professor Kenneth Wiltshire and a 2010 submission to the Minister of Education by the Australian Curriculum Coalition are worth noting here. Two flaws in The National Curriculum and particularly the new History Syllabus play a role in constraining what may be achieved. Firstly the curriculum is overcrowded as a whole and bloated with content within specific syllabus documents. This heavy content focus encourages an approach to teaching History (and other disciplines) that places the emphasis on building a knowledge bank rather than giving time to a deep analysis of cause and effect and the lessons to be learned. Secondly as Donnelly and Wiltshire noted from submissions to their review, 'the location of complex content at too early a phase in the spectrum F–10' results in a superficial treatment of topics which require a more detailed analysis. These factors combined with the reality that student’s early experiences of History will be delivered by generalist teachers who have had little professional development around the teaching of the subject means students are likely to equate History with the accumulation of information and miss the important understandings of the process and the connectives so essential to the subject. When students most need to understand that History is a discipline we may use to improve our futures it is consigned to a study of irrelevant and disconnected artifacts of our past.
When Edward De Bono was asked ‘what schools should stop doing’ while speaking a the International Conference on Thinking (ICOT) in Spain he answered that 'we can reduce many subjects, we can reduce History and Geography'. I have pondered this response numerous times since then. Had anyone other than Professor De Bono made this statement it might be easily dismissed, but given he has multiple Doctorates across diverse fields, has written eighty-five books and has a University faculty dedicated to his work, this is not easily done. I think when it is combined with a new word De Bono has offered to describe how we approach thinking I understand what he meant. De Bono introduced the word ‘EBNE’ as a way of describing approaches to thinking that are ‘Excellent But Not Enough’. ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ is EBNE (excellent but not enough) it must be ‘Those who cannot apply learning from the past to their present and future situations are condemned to repeat it.’ but for this to happen we need History lessons that teach how to learn from the past and doing that requires a curriculum with time devoted to this goal.
by Nigel Coutts