Teaching Happy Endings

Riot police guard Hollywood Boulevard

One of the problems with the teaching of GCSE history is the tendency for narrative to insert itself into specific modules. This is perhaps unavoidable as history has been passed on as story for tens of thousands of years and taught as an intellectual discipline for a little over 200. It is important to be mindful, however, that as a module ends, the idea that the issue in question has been ‘resolved’ is ‘over’ and/or ‘fixed’ can be unintentionally communicated to pupils. It goes without saying that this can result in a teleological and ahistorical view of change over time ( i.e. the set of processes that we are describing were merely a set of stepping stones from the past to now, which is the historical end point that people have been trying to reach for so long). It scythes off other viewpoints, voices and questions and imposes a dominant and defined meaning on the past. All bad stuff, but even worse, it prevents learners from critically appraising the present because the present is fine and fixed and it was only the past that was ‘wrong’ somehow. Below are a few examples of the happy ending in action:

  1. Civil Rights.

At the end of most civil rights chapters in US history textbooks (by which I mean UK textbooks that teach the history of America), a section is normally devoted to the advances that black Americans have made since the 1970s. It cites obvious examples of success in sporting or entertainment fields such as James Brown or Carl Lewis, and more contemporary titles might feature the presidency of Barack Obama. Some titles give some coverage of the problems black Americans still faced during the 1980s and 1990s but this is invariably fleeting. The idea that pupils often come away from the module with is that by and large everything is ok for black people in America and that change began with the Civil Rights Act 1964 and the Voting Rights Act 1965. The dramatic growth of the black prison population in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s is almost never mentioned, neither are the economic and social problems encountered in black communities from the Reagan era onwards. The continuing economic and health inequalities between white and black people  in America and the continuing levels of police brutality are rarely mentioned. The meta-narrative of Martin Luther King and the civil rights campaigns of Montgomery and Birmingham are difficult to square with the Rodney King beatings and subsequent riots. To tell pupils that, despite all the Martin Luther King did and struggled for, in 1992 white policemen were acquitted by an all white jury for their attack on the motorist Rodney King is to disrupt the story.

2) The Cold War

Another case in point is the teaching of the Cold War, which culminates with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many modules will run up to 1989 or 1991 and teachers, pressed for time are unlikely to burden the learners with any information beyond that point. It becomes tempting for narrative to reassert itself at this point and for teachers to trot out ideas that even Francis Fukuyama has distanced himself from since, that the end of the Cold War was the end of history. Seeing the Cold War as two binary opposites, good and bad, democratic liberal capitalism and communism makes the construction of narrative all the more likely. At the end of the module the bad guys are defeated and order and justice restored to the world (if you ignore the massive poverty in Russia and Eastern Europe caused by the introduction of free market capitalism and privatisation and the horrors of the Balkan Wars). An implicit and unspoken politics also filters into the thinking of pupils, that some kind of ‘natural order’ of things was restored in 1991 and the world was at peace. The fact that the following two decades have been riven with conflict as a result of the end of the Cold War, that capitalism was not greeted by Russians with open arms and the idea that American hegemony post 1991 has been destabilising , especially after 9/11 is only just starting to feature in textbooks.

In both these examples only certain perspectives are entertained. The large black underclass in America who might not agree that ‘everything is ok now’ do not feature on the syllabus. The various losers from the end of the Cold War from Yugoslavia and Russia to Britain and America where a radical shift against social democratic politics took place are also suitably marginalised. It is a given that teachers only have so much time in which to deliver lessons and are constantly under pressure to simplify, standardise and yet attain ever greater results. The outcome is a simplistic, misleading, unreflective and limited analysis of the past which teaches pupils that ‘it happened back then, it was fixed by someone else and it’s not happening now’.


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