It feels as if Chris Culpin’s name is on virtually every second text book in my history department. He is Deputy President of the Historical Association, was a chief examiner and director of the highly influential Schools History Project from 1997-2008. As I listened to his keynote talk at the Historical Association annual conference on Friday I wondered if he wrote it just to conform to stereotype. On twitter the trenchant Andrew Old insists that subject associations are bastions of progressivism within education. I had never felt more strongly that possibly he had a point. The talk was titled ‘More knowledge = better history?’ and the thrust of the talk seemed to suggest that this was a false assumption. In fact at one point Chris talked about the problems of having too much knowledge. [edited 31/5/14, see comments]
There I was telling my A level students to read as widely as possible so that their judgements were well informed. I would not advise reading more deeply when you have not assimilated and to be honest it wasn’t clear what Chris meant but he didn’t suggest more knowledge was simply a problem if it could not be assimilated, which seems the only interpretation that those that value the discipline of history could find reasonable.
He kicked off by asking us if we could all name in order every monarch who was ‘a second’, e.g. Henry II. Presumably he was trying to show the pointlessness of disconnected facts. Perhaps he took his own ability to name them for granted. It is easy to dismiss the value of knowledge when you have it. I, on the other hand, was unable to complete the task and felt ignorant, not smug. Either way this was misleading given that no one in the educational debate over the importance of knowledge places a value on disconnected facts, not even that devil incarnate, Michael Gove (of whom there was the obligatory cartoon caricature on one slide).
‘What is the point of learning large amounts of detailed information when it is there at the touch of a button?’ Chris asked at one point. Again it was unclear how far he was willing to take this argument as he quickly explained that suggesting teaching without knowledge is even an option, is ridiculous. I also don’t know how any teaching could go on without some knowledge being in evidence and wished Chris would, instead of attacking straw men, actually address the arguments of those that think children should be taught MORE knowledge than currently. One of these people, ED Hirsch was mentioned but not his arguments.
The talk was disappointing because it simply attacked positions few would hold. He explained that in the past history had often been simply about copying detail off a board that children didn’t understand and I can sympathise with the need to react against that approach. Chris Culpin is very much part of the movement that responded to such poor teaching by stressing skills in history, so his view that more knowledge in schools does not equal better history is unsurprising. The implications of his views were hard to gather from the talk but clearer if you attended the sessions.
His views reflect (or influence?) the unquestioned assumptions of many history teachers. I went to hear Michael Fordham give a brilliant session on using Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III with year 7s. He explained to the room that you cannot explain or judge the value of that negative depiction without knowing about the monarchs who preceded Richard III and also the context in which Shakespeare wrote. It was clear from the discussion that arose in this session that:
It is quite normal in history teaching in schools today to ask students to make judgements with little of this sort of context in place. In fact…
The idea of spending time telling children a bit about the reigns of preceding monarchs so they grasped the chronology seemed fairly novel in that room.
The idea that in history we can be storytellers simply provoked the question that surely that would be very ‘teacher led’ approach (and by implication bad).
The idea of doing quizzes to help the kids or any approaches that help ensure KS3 children actually LEARN the events was also unusual.
So Chris Culpin is far from alone in downplaying the importance of knowledge history classrooms…
Ironically Michael demonstrated just why it might be useful to know your kings in order as he showed how knowing the story of the previous monarchs, combined with knowing about Shakespeare’s time, meant students could really explain the bard’s interpretation of Richard III. Again, I was embarrassed that I could not order those medieval monarchs without a few minutes to think. Nonetheless when we were all asked to think what explanations the now well informed year 7s might have come up with for Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III it was that apparently useless knowledge of the kings in order (and whether they were Lancastrian or Yorkist) that I had by now plucked from the recesses of my mind, that came to my rescue and allowed me (and the year 7s) to provide a sensible explanation.
A highlight of the weekend for me was hearing Anna Keay give a reappraisal of James Duke of Monmouth. For me history is ‘gossip well told’ (don’t we all love a good story) and there were plenty of colourful details. Anna Keay was asked at the end how she had come to reject the standard view of this royal duke. She explained that initially she had accepted the standard judgement of him as a vain man the Whigs exploited but it was reading far more, learning more about him from the primary evidence, that allowed her to see that history had misjudged him. Maybe sometimes more knowledge does equal better history…