Teaching History 185: Out now

The HA's journal for secondary history teachers

By Rachel Foster, Christine Counsell, Tony McConnell, Katharine Burn (Editors), published 16th December 2021

Editorial: Missing stories

Read Teaching History 185: Missing stories

In their prologue to What is History Now? (published earlier this year to mark the 60th anniversary of E.H. Carr’s seminal work), Helen Carr and Susannah Lipscomb both admit to owning a ruler of rulers: a list of monarchs of Britain from the year 43 to 1952 set out on a 30cm wooden ruler. Intended to present a straightforward inventory, the list is used instead by Carr and Lipscomb to illustrate the processes of selection and interpretation that are inevitably present whenever historians or others seek to marshal the facts of the past to create any kind of historical account. As Carr and Lipscomb point out, the list fails to include any of the monarchs of Scotland (since the list elides ‘British’ with ‘English’) and fails to name either of the contested queens, Matilda and Jane. Their stories were assumed not to count; they did not meet the implicit criteria for selection.

While the secondary history curriculum obviously provides much more scope than a 30cm ruler, school timetables still impose tight constraints on what can be included. Teachers’ choices are shaped not only by the requirements of national curricula and exam board specifications, but also by the cost of purchasing new resources and the amount of time that teachers would need to invest in developing new subject knowledge. While the latter forces tend to promote high levels of curriculum inertia, teachers’ recognition of the power inherent in the stories that they share and interrogate with young people has also prompted them – just as it prompted Carr and Lipscomb to generate a new, collective response to the question ‘What is history now?’ – to think carefully about the stories missing from their curricula. These are the stories that arise from what E.H. Carr originally described as ‘the unending dialogue between the present and the past’. They are the stories constructed in response to new questions, asked by new enquirers, with access to new techniques, enabling them to overcome some of the archival silences that Trouillot so powerfully acknowledged. They are often the stories of those of who have been excluded or marginalised within the historical record; the stories that young people – including (but not only) those at risk of marginalisation themselves – need to hear.

Each of the articles in this issue makes a case for the inclusion in the curriculum of such missing stories. The one on which Hannah Elias and Martin Spafford focus is that of the grassroots activism that drove the struggle for civil rights in Britain during the course of the twentieth century. Pointing out that the stories of Rosa Parkes, Martin Luther King and Malcom X still tend to be far more familiar to British students than those of Paul Stephenson, Darcus Howe, Claudia Jones or Jayaben Desai, our authors Elias and Spafford first offer readers a number of principles that might underpin teaching of the anti-racist struggle and then share a wealth of practical advice about relevant and accessible resources to support such teaching.

Claire Holliss is concerned both about stories long neglected by the curriculum – such as those of the LGBTQ+ community – and about the angle or perspective from which the stories that are included have been told. Reflecting on successive waves of A-level curriculum renewal within her department, Holliss explains how her focus on the issue of representation, asking what exactly she is seeking to illuminate, has prompted her to look, for example, beyond presentations of Elizabeth I as an isolated and unusual figure as a female ruler; instead reminding students not only of her elder sister, Mary, but also of other powerful female contemporaries exercising power in various ways across Europe. In making clear the unfamiliar ways in which gender was constructed in the sixteenth century, Holliss has also sought to illustrate for her students the rich new seams of enquiry that the study of gender is opening up.

For Neil Bates and Robert Bowry, the stories that students are in danger of missing, but that could do much to boost their sense of belonging and of pride in their local community, are those that have been found literally beneath their feet or under the wheels of vehicles in the neighbouring supermarket car park! Drawing on a range of examples showing how they have used local history to strengthen the coherence of their whole curriculum, Bates and Bowry illustrate how history departments can increase young people’s sense of agency through careful consultation and can counter their assumptions that ‘history never happens here’.

A local story – that of the border reivers, many of whom had the same surnames as her students in Carlisle – also features in the Cunning Plan developed by Carmel Bones. The plan is essentially to direct readers to the RETEACH website, a free resource supported by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society that identifies relevant historical scholarship dealing with fresh or neglected perspectives on topics commonly taught at Key Stage  3 and within the most popular exam specifications.

The missing stories that Chris Jeppesen, Molly Navey and Hannah Cusworth seek to introduce to the history classroom are those of the classroom itself. Jeppesen, a post-doctoral researcher on a Cambridge University project examining ‘Secondary Education and Social Change’ from 1945 to the 1990s explains how four history teachers worked collaboratively with the project team to develop a series of resource packs, each tackling a different story. Navey and Cusworth reflect on the design and impact of the particular packs on which they worked: the former examining the ways in which school life was shaped by changing attitudes to gender and sexuality; the latter exploring what school life reveals about changing attitudes to race.

The issue concludes with a reflective piece by Richard Harris, drawing on a range of recent research projects to identify new directions for curricular thinking that might enhance the coherence and power of the entire collection of stories that they share with their students.