Sunday, October 17, 2010
Allan Peachey: Speaking the Truth
In history facts are clear and indisputable. Everybody knows that the date on which Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939 is a fact. Everybody knows that the British Prime Minister who issued the declaration was called Neville Chamberlain. So we don’t argue or talk about that, what we might argue and debate about are the causes of the war. When I was teaching School Certificate history many years ago one of the topics in the curriculum was the Arab/Israeli conflict since 1945. It was easy to relate the facts, things like the dates of the various wars and the leaders of the countries or factions. Much more difficult was to attach blame, and this is the point. So after I had taught the facts of the conflict I, with the students, year after year drew up a big chart with all the facts that a student had to know if they were going to be able intelligently write an exam answer. Then for each fact we wrote up the Arab explanation and the Israeli explanation. Finally we looked at the historiography of the topic, in other words what the various historians were saying. I felt it was always important to ensure that the students had enough information, both factual and interpretative, to write a balanced explanation of what had happened. Some would come down on the side of the Israelis, others on the side of the Arabs and some would say it was just not possible to decide who was right and who was wrong. The reality, of course, is that there is always a bit of right and a bit of wrong on all sides. What was important was that the students learnt to use factual information and various interpretations to form their own view which they could argue in a balanced way.
I have never forgotten my University Entrance history class at Ruapehu College in 1966 when we were studying the Imperialism topic. We were required to write an essay in which we evaluated the various explanations for European imperialism on continents like Africa. The conventional wisdom of the day was that the main motive for imperialism was economic greed. And, of course, economic motivation is one of the great explanations for what has happened through history. In my essay while acknowledging that the prevailing view made economic interest, the main motivating factor for imperialism I actually argued was a European’s country need for prestige, and to get one up on its European neighbours was actually a more important motivating factor. I topped the class for that essay and then found myself in quite long discussions with the history teacher and even the principal of the school as to whether I had given due weight to economic factors or not. The important thing, and what I respected most from that exercise, was that I was allowed to form my own interpretation and argue it through the accurate use of facts and support it with the interpretations of historians. I have never forgotten that lesson.
I saw a great series of lessons taught by a young history teacher early on in my tenure as Principal of Rangitoto College. Incidentally that young teacher has gone on to the deputy principalship of a very good school. I was walking the school grounds one morning, as I did daily, when at the back of the school on an unkempt bank, with smoke billowing out of the incinerator (yes, schools burnt their rubbish in those days!) I found the class of School Certificate history students sitting at their desks amongst this mess being taught by their teacher. I took a double take, swallowed hard, said good morning to the class and kept walking. I wondered how many phone calls of complaint I would get from parents the next morning. My action was a huge leap of faith in the teacher. I recalled years ago in my first year of teaching how I had taken a class outside for a lesson and been reprimanded by the principal not because it was not a brilliant lesson (I would argue it was!) but because teachers with lesser control of their classes than I had did not like me doing it. So anyway the young teacher, smart lad, came to see me at the end of the day and did two very clever things. Firstly he explained that he was debating the Arab/Israeli topic and he was trying to teach the students what it was like to be dispossessed of land. A second smart thing that he did was to draw me into the conspiracy. He asked me to attend the lesson next day out on the dirty bank and tell the class that I had taken their classroom away from them because there was a bunch of new students in the school who had come from difficult times overseas and I needed their classroom for them, and they would just have to make do. The final sequel to the lesson was that the teacher asked the students to write down what they could do to persuade me to give them their classroom back. Their solutions were simple … either assassinate me or kidnap my wife and children and hold them hostage. I doubt that all these years later any one of these students has forgotten that series of lessons or what they learnt about the Arab perspective on the Arab/Israeli conflict and about the nature of terrorism.
What I am describing to you was brilliant school teaching. It was the brilliant teaching of history with full regard for the historical facts but with that extra dimension when it came to understanding why certain people acted in particular ways.
I doubt a school teacher would be brave enough to do that these days, even if they had a principal with the courage to keep walking. And therein lies what I think is a growing problem with our schooling system. Today we put far too little emphasis on curriculum and the accuracy of the factual information required by that curriculum and far too much on trying to prescribe how teachers teach. I find it ironic that what should be tightly controlled and defined, the curriculum, is now very loosely confined while what should be free and imaginative, the art of teaching, is now being micro-managed. All this is doing is driving great school teaching out of our classrooms.
at 9:30 AM