The problem with ‘Humanities’

I believe in the importance of teachers who understand the discipline of their subject. When teaching history non specialists are, for example, more likely to:

-Impose the values of today unthinkingly when judging the past (‘whites were racist in 1920s America’)
-Present the decisions of past people as if they were stupid and we are more wise.
-They are less likely to understand the broader context of events and draw parallels to develop understanding of second order concepts.
-When teaching ‘skills’ non specialists are more likely to teach a mechanistic approach to source analysis leading to students parroting ‘the source is unreliable because it is biased’ and other positively harmful mantras.

I recently chatted to someone that believed students should have one humanities teacher throughout KS3 and that prompted this post (which I hope will be viewed by him as constructive!) His motives were laudable as this would allow a teacher to thoroughly know and support each child. It is a necessity at primary level but this approach at KS3 would mean many children NEVER being taught by a subject specialist in history, my subject. Perhaps this doesn’t matter, they will at least have a ‘humanities specialist’. However, although teacher might, over time, become specialised in more than one humanities subject that is the only way the term ‘humanities specialist’ has meaning.

It is true that a humanities department also seems to make lots of sense from a managerial/administrative level. If all subjects ‘about people’ are organised as one subject, timetabling is simpler and you can have just one faculty head. If students can’t be required to study all the subjects available ‘about people’ there is some logic in requiring then to study at least one. However, do these subjects actually have much in common as subject disciplines? Thinking about and studying ‘people’ is pretty broad… I’ll focus my discussion on what I see as the most problematic issue, the difference between the knowledge and skills of history and geography graduates.

My problem with having a ‘Humanities Department’ is that joining geography with history is fairly artificial. The subjects are simply not very similar and thus geography teachers may well not understand the discipline of history and vice versa.

As a history teacher which other department do I look at to get an idea of a student’s potential in history? The only other really similarly essay based subject at GCSE is English. I taught KS3 English for one year and then rather unfortunately quipped at a job interview that English was ‘history without the content’ (turned out it was an English teacher interviewing me). I hear of Teach First candidates with history degrees teaching English and I can see some logic in that. Very few history graduates won’t have done English A level. I actually found it quite hard working out what I should be stressing and drawing out in my year as an English teacher but beyond the skills any teacher would bring I did understand something about setting extended writing, had strong(ish) literacy skills and appreciated literature – the same would be typical of most history graduates. However, if I was asked to teach geography I would be utterly clueless as I know nothing about it beyond general knowledge and my study of history (another humanity…) hasn’t equipped me with any knowledge of what makes a good geographer.

Think of this another way. If a non specialist was asked to teach some history would you think, ‘Well never mind, at least they did geography A level! After all that is about people too…’ Geography has little more content overlap with history than biology and in fact physical geography clearly overlaps more with science. I would suggest that a science graduate is as well equipped to teach geography, if not better equipped than a history graduate. An English graduate is more likely to have studied history at A level and would understand more about teaching extended writing. Quite frequently school timetables have made children choose one humanity. This means that history GCSE, let alone A level, is actually LESS likely to have been studied by a geography graduate than other subjects.

I am not making an argument to ignore the particular skills and knowledge of the individual teacher in front of you. Many teachers have years of experience teaching history and geography and do a good job. Someone in our school taught Music and Classical Civilisation last year because of her particular knowledge and experience and it made sense. Neither am I unaware of the constraints on timetables that sometimes dictate teaching by non specialists.

The problem is with having a ‘Humanities Faculty’ that embraces the notion that the subjects within it share the same disciplinary approach and that the teachers are especially well qualified, through their degree and teaching experience in their specialist subject, to teach other ‘humanities subjects’. This is simply untrue with history and geography and most dangerously can lead to students having NEVER been been taught my subject, history, by a specialist throughout their schooling.

It is not the purpose of this post to really delve into WHY history is a distinct discipline and thus requires specialist teachers. However, if one accepts (the fairly uncontroversial contention) that history IS a distinct discipline and yet one chooses to allow children to be taught ‘humanities’ by one teacher at KS3, one can only assume that this is because good history teaching is not the top priority. Perhaps other priorities are more important but the fact that children’s historical or geographical understanding is probably short changed in the process must be acknowledged.

Finally, when there ARE specialist teachers used at secondary level, a ‘Humanities Faculty’ is a managerial construct.

Be careful what you wish for

There is so much talk around about how to create children who ‘love learning’ and who are ‘life-long learners’. Claxton and Lucas are very representative of this trend. They describe eight ‘learning orientated habits of the ‘life-long learning mind’. Within these there is stress on some other buzz words resilience and persistence. They interpret the research of people such as Carol Dweck as suggesting these can be inculcated in our children. Claxton and Lucas suggest that these habits of mind can be developed at school through:

  • Language used with students in the classroom for example to focus on learning as an activity and combat Dweck’s now well-known fixed mind set.
  • Teachers modelling good attitudes to learning
  • Encouraging students to evaluate and improve their own work
  • A curriculum that cultivates life skills
  • Encouraging parents to be learners also
  • A school environment that has less structure and more student control and leaders willing to implement this

Is this the way to create life-long learners with resilience and persistence? I really don’t think so.

Take my own Dad. He was a true Cockney, born into poverty in Stepney, 1911. I think he left school aged 12, to work in a Jewish draper’s shop because, he said, his dad wouldn’t get him a ticket to work on the docks. I was born when he was 62 and my memories of him are of an old man that talked like Alf Garnett, in a grimy button-less mac, a greasy trilby on his head, with cut down wellie boots and newspapers under his jumper throughout the winter. He lived off jam sandwiches and cups of tea made with leaves, three sugar cubes and topped up with Fussell’s condensed milk. He wasn’t very literate and for much of his adult life he was a road sweeper. However, he ‘loved learning’. Actually, no, he didn’t ‘love learning’ – that implies an indiscriminate desire to acquire any knowledge. My dad loved SOMETHING and wanted to learn about it, he loved ‘istry. As a young man he borrowed books from the library and most enjoyed stories of kings and queens. He could recite all the monarchs of England, from the conquest to present day, in order, with their ruling houses. He had a theory about the Princes in the Tower and a picture of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage that he felt must be very valuable and kept reverently wrapped in newspaper in his pantry.

As I try to tease out what made my dad enjoy history, nothing on the bulleted list above has any real relevance. Perhaps he liked stories that lifted him out of the drear tedium of daily life. Perhaps that explains his appetite for history. There was a hole to fill anyway. Thankfully he wasn’t educated by Claxton and Lucas who suggest:

‘Knowing the Kings and Queens of England…are not top priority life skills. Their claim for inclusion in the core curriculum rests on the extent to which they provide engaging and effective ‘exercise machines’ for stretching and strengthening generalizable habits of mind’

There is an irony here. Students are too busy being given the habits of mind to become lifelong learners to actually learn some stuff now, for its own sake. What a mechanistic approach to education, to just develop skills, rather than feed the mind…

I also enjoyed learning about history. Not because of what my father talked about, when he mentioned the past it wasn’t one I recognised from my school history lessons. I suppose in himself, as a family connection with a time that had generally long past, he made me curious. I was a total bookworm and when I lived with my mum, there were tea chests of books from jumble sales that we children could rummage through. We were neglected, there was no television and so we would go off to the library every Saturday, via my dad’s house and read all day. I think my interests were sparked by my reading and that was born of escapism. I continued to travel by buses to see my dad every week when I was fostered. I have tried to work out what gave me the persistence to keep seeing him when it took perhaps nearly two hours each way with a series of bus changes. He probably had some degree of dementia throughout my childhood and he was often unreasonably anxious and I would spend much of my visit trying, ineffectually, to clear the detritus in his rather squalid two room accommodation. When I think of times like that all the rhetoric about persistence, resilience and mindset seems incredibly shallow and pointless. In what possible way do you create a meaningful degree of resilience through, as Dweck’s research is used by some to suggest, talking a certain way in maths lessons? I would speculate that actually my commitment was because of the sense of duty that came from a religious upbringing and taking to heart Enid Blyton’s 1950s morality.

My dad did help me with my history though. At sixth form I studied the Tudors and we finally had a common language. He started to go to the library in the week and get books out for me. He was very concerned that I shouldn’t tell the teacher what we were doing. In his schooling extra books were like cribs. To find out extra information was cheating. ‘Ere y’are love, he’d say, as he handed over JJ Scarisbrick’s Henry VIII . He would chuckle at how we were tricking the teacher and point out the glorious number of facts the book contained that could be found by using the list at the back, called an index. Now, as an adult, I can see these memories are reason enough for my visits.

For myself and my father a ‘love of history’ grew to fill a need, it was not ignited by some spuriously ‘engaging’ school lesson activities. My own children also tend to read when other more instant sources of gratification are removed and they need a distraction. I do wonder what weak easily extinguished ‘love of learning’ grows up from school lessons that feed a love of fun rather than focusing on what is intrinsically interesting.

Education has an ongoing obsession with quick fixes. In society we are promised we can ‘get a new figure in four weeks’ and in education we are told we can get  skills without toil, learn to love learning history by playing ‘Weimar Germany Monopoly’ in class or develop resilience though being given open ended maths problems. I do think we can learn from work such as Dweck’s on Mindset but what on earth makes us think that facile adjustments to a child’s schooling can profoundly alter people? It is madness to ignore the need to feed the intellect in favour of unproven claims that faddish changes to education might possibly develop desirable attributes. We don’t know if the bullet pointed approaches above even cause the desired outcomes let alone whether acquisition will transfer to other situations.

As a child I was curious to learn but I think I worked hard because it was so obviously my route to a better life. I became resilient by surviving the rubbish my childhood threw at me and I wanted to learn about certain things because it was less boring than other options or a form of escapism. Love of learning about the things that interest you, the persistence to try and resilience to cope are desirable attributes but be careful what you wish for. My experience (and I think my father’s) suggests love is born of need and resilience is achieved through suffering.

My dad, Charlie Meers.