Can a curriculum ever be balanced?

One does not have to look too hard to find examples of where curriculum selection was designed to indoctrinate. The most obvious cases are the totalitarian states of the twentieth century where children in, say, 1930s Germany or the USSR were taught curricula that were designed to advance a specific view of the human past. In these contexts, the only history worth knowing – indeed the only history that it was permitted to know – was that set out in the school curriculum. Deviations from this were discouraged, and in some cases punished. In a different way the ‘imperial’ curriculum taught in public schools in Britain before the First World War was designed to instil a set of beliefs and attitudes about the nation, its imperial prowess and the right of its people to rule over others. These are the sorts of curriculum that keep critics awake at night, fearful that the latest National Curriculum or examination specification has been designed with these aims in mind. Their fears are not entirely unfounded, of course, and a brief read of the Daily Mail or the education policy of the British National Party will show that there certainly are people around today who would like to see the school history curriculum used as a tool for instilling national pride in the children we teach.

The usual direction for such a critique of curriculum is to show how it privileges one group over another. This is sometimes accompanied by a commentary on the people who wrote the curriculum. Whilst I am sympathetic to the aims of these critics, this line of argument contains a flaw, which is that any curriculum can be criticised for what it excludes because, by definition, only a terribly small proportion of all that can be known about the human past can be taught in schools. It is, for example, very common to criticise a curriculum as being Anglocentric, but even a very Anglocentric curriculum can be criticised. Where is the history of Yorkshire? How come we study only the history of Kent in the 14th century and not the 16th century? Why does the nineteenth-century content focus on Manchester, and not on Sheffield, or Birmingham, or Bristol? A curriculum might be seen as focusing too much on the protestant reformation, but make no mention of a variety of protestant denominations. Why is working class history taught through the lens of the Jarrow March, and not the Chartist movement? Why cover the women’s suffrage movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but not study the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft in a Vindication of the Rights of Women? All of this is before we even get outside of England. A history curriculum can always be criticised for what it excludes because, by its very nature, it will pass over most of the history of most people in most parts of the world at most times.

One response to this problem is to try and have ‘prescribed diversity’, and we have seen various attempts at this in all iterations of the English National Curriculum. There’s always been an insistence on studying Welsh, Scottish and Irish history, and there’s always been a requirement to study European and wider world history. There have been statutory requirements to teach women’s history, black history, working-class history and so on. On the face of it, this is a little more acceptable, but really it papers over the cracks, with tokenism the usual result. We thus end up with schools that claim to have taught ‘women’s history’ because they have ‘done the Suffragettes’ or schools that tick the ‘black history’ box by teaching about the slave trade. I think most critics recognise that such tokenism makes little difference: if anything, reducing black history to the slave trade or women’s history to the suffrage movement does a disservice to both, and is as likely to reinforce stereotypes as it is to break them. Prescribed diversity is a nice idea, but it is in practice a thin veil covering the intractable problem that all curricula are, by their very nature, excluding most of human history.

At heart, this makes the same error in curriculum thinking as that which underpins the ‘totalitarian’ position, which is to assume that the curriculum contains all that is valuable and anything not in the curriculum is not worth knowing. For a totalitarian state, the curriculum is a tool of indoctrination, and it follows quite naturally that pupils should learn only those things it includes. But the ‘prescribed diversity’ advocates make exactly the same mistake: they too assume that everything worth knowing must be included in the curriculum, and that anything left out of the curriculum is thus necessarily devalued. Whilst my liberal sympathies are undoubtedly in this case with the ‘prescribed diversity’ advocates rather than the totalitarian rulers hell-bent on indoctrination, we should recognise that both rely on a view of curriculum that treats the curriculum as the totality of all that is worth knowing. It is an example of the wider confusion between the terms ‘education’ and ‘schooling’ in which the latter is seen as being responsible for everything that might reasonably be included in the former. This attachment to the idea that the curriculum must contain everything worth knowing makes it impossible to move on in our curriculum thinking. To escape this quandary, we must first reject the view that the curriculum contains all that is worth knowing, and that all that is worth knowing can be found in the curriculum.

There are two things we can do as teachers to sever this connection. The first is to ‘go meta’, and to teach – explicitly – the problem as a problem. This is in essence what I argued when I last wrote on the problem of curriculum selection in 2013, and my view on this has changed little. Since 1991, the English National Curriculum has specified that we history teachers are required to teach children ‘interpretations of the past’, the idea that the past can and has been interpreted by different people in different ways for a variety of different reasons. Indeed, the 2014 iteration of the curriculum is the most explicit so far on this, setting out that all children must study not just how the past has been interpreted in different ways, but why this has happened. What is usually not made sufficiently explicit, however, is that the curriculum is itself an interpretation, and is thus open to critique in the same way as any other interpretation. I cannot teach my pupils every possible dimension of every period of the human past – I can teach a near infinitesimally small selection from this. What I can do is to teach students that my curriculum is a selection, an interpretation, and that it should be understood as a starting point, and not an end point. It is not too difficult to structure lessons on this into the curriculum: as one example, take a look at Matt Stanford’s recent homework task that he set his students after reading Peter Frankopan’s excellent book Silk Roads. A good history teacher is aware that his or her students need to know that the curriculum is an interpretation can easily find ways to make this point clear.

The second closely-associated way of breaking the totalitarian view of curriculum is to be transparent with pupils and parents as to what is and is not being covered. Parent information evenings should outline clearly what is being studied, and provide pointers to what is not being studied. School assemblies are an excellent opportunity to point students towards things they might not normally study. The very language that history teachers use should be making clear to pupils that the curriculum they are being taught is a history and not the history. You see experienced history teachers do this all the time: they are constantly making pupils aware of all the wonderful things they do not have time to study in school, and showing where to go next in order to find out more about this. Textbooks are a serious part of the problem. So many school textbooks try to be ‘balanced’ or ‘neutral’, but in practice they end up having little in common with works of history that are often dripping with authorial intent. One of my favourite books to use with younger students is Gombrich’s Little History of the World, not because I think it is comprehensive, but because it is written with a vivid authorial voice that makes it clear that what is being offered is an interpretation. Trying to write balanced textbooks is a noble but ultimately foolhardy enterprise, as is criticising textbooks for not being balanced. We would be far better off treating our textbooks for what they are – interpretations of the past – and adjusting our teaching accordingly.

None of this means that we should not ask ourselves some fairly searching questions about what goes into a curriculum and what gets left out. But I would argue that subjugating all else to a utopian vision of a neutral curriculum, written from some Archimedean Point above the debate, is not a productive use of our time. It is at best a parlour game and one that, in some cases, can seriously inhibit curriculum thinking by catching us in a debate that can by definition not be resolved.

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6 Comments on Can a curriculum ever be balanced?

  1. Tom Burkard // 27 March 2017 at 19:14 // Reply

    In recent times there has been far too much concern about teaching topics in depth, and not enough on building a coherent overview of human history. Daisy Christo once told me that her pupils had no idea that people in the US hadn’t always spoken English–even their idea of ‘the past’ was pretty hazy. Surely it would not be too taxing to teach pupils about how the great civilisations from Sumeria onwards emerged and declined.

    Another problem is the appalling lack of geographic knowledge–how many pupils these days could identify France or Germany on a blank map of Europe–or even Birmingham on a map of England? Understanding the Eastern Question is pretty heavy going if you don’t appreciate where the expanding Russian and British empires threatened each other, and the extent of the Ottoman empire.

    The notion that diversity should dictate the curriculum would be risible if people didn’t take it so seriously. I’d much rather see history teachers given a certain amount of latitude in deciding what subjects to cover in depth than leave it up to bureaucrats, politicians and pressure from certain lobbies.

    • Yep, this is why I quite like the National Curriculum as a broad framework. If it were actually taught (especially at KS2) it would cover quite a good breadth and then, as you say, it’s up to teachers to work out how to make it work. This said I can also see the case for having a far more detailed curriculum model as exemplifications of what ‘teaching the National Curriculum’ might look like.

  2. I think you are being a bit generous with those who promote the teaching of black/female/working class history. They are totalitarian and want to indoctrinate as much as the Nazi’s/Communists. Their need to create a simple oppressed/oppressor narrative precludes the idea that there is any other way of looking at the world! Hence it isn’t included. Take the “why is my curriculum white” campaign. There is an absolute refusal to engage with any dialogue or even contemplate the fact that the vast majority of people who have ever lived in England/UK are white. It’s no more reasonable starting this campaign in England than a group of white Danish immigrants doing the same in India.

    In the end, we have to decide if we are teaching history or “advocating” for a cause before we even start to look at the curriculum content.

  3. It is this common belief neutrality is possible that leads to the problems children have with ‘bias’. Great post and yes Teachwell is right that both your groups named are hellbent on indoctrination. We all teach history through the prism of (our own and) societal values – it’s impossible not to. Some teachers are more aware than others that this what they are doing. You’re right that it is by acknowledging this to our students that we empower them but if we are genuinely sincere about this we may well allow our pupils adopt values we really don’t like.

  4. Some principles needed surely for curriculum selection for any subject – to provide degree of restraint on a culturally strong, prior predilection for relativism? Not all interpretations are equally valid,after all. You don’t discount it but think it needs explicit flagging up. Also think those calling for diversity/decolonising etc. re. the curriculum are less concerned with substantive changes in content as much as establishing a new (or not so new) attitudinal change, mainly one of adopting some variation of ‘white/male’ guilt.

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