New Podcast Series: Confronting Controversial History

Thanks to Jason Todd, Oxford University and HA Trustee, for this blogpost. Jason worked with Natasha Robinson and a team of contributers to create the podcast series ‘Confronting Controversial History’. Here, Jason explains the context to these podcasts and that they are intended to enable teachers to confidently engage with the topics and with further conversations about controversial histories.

In October 2019 we organised a conference ‘Conflict and Identity: confronting the past through education.’ One of the highlights was asking local students to make posters for the conference “WHERE DO YOU SEE CONFLICT, AND HOW CAN THE HISTORY CURRICULUM ADDRESS IT?” Young people are amazing and surprising, the contributions were wide ranging but as this quote reveals “The History curriculum therefore bears the responsibility of teaching the next generation about conflict”, they want their history lesson to play a role in helping them think about these issues.

I contend that teaching and learning controversial issues is increasingly vital in today’s society. As debate moves from academia and legislative chambers into the “real world” and online, people need to be able to civilly discuss controversial topics with one another. Teaching controversial topics can provide a model of civic engagement in an era in which we desperately need it.

Foundational to this conference was the recognition that history’s relationship with identity is a contested terrain, especially in relation to exploring how the present negotiates conflict in the past. All nations have controversial histories, yet leaving these histories unexplored can contribute to contestations, misunderstandings, divisions, and intolerances in the present. Recent events, which have included large-scale global protests around legacies of slavery and colonialism, serve to underpin this point. While the posters the students created suggested a desire on their part for their history lessons to engage more meaningfully with these issues.

Given the complexity of these “controversial histories” teachers value support offered by emerging historical scholarship and appropriate educational research. The idea of controversial histories has a synergy with ‘emotive and controversial’ history that formed the focus of the Historical Association’s report, Teaching Emotive and Controversial History 3-19 (T.E.A.C.H). Published in 2007 it offered teachers invaluable guidance for teaching historical topics that can stir emotion and controversy. The authors (Wrenn et al, 2007) noted how the nature of the sensitivity can be affected by “time, geography and awareness.”

We can see today how these debates and sensitivities are being played out again marking a new set of configurations that is an inevitable part of Carr’s ‘unending dialogue’ between the past and the present. The HA secondary survey of teachers (2021) indicated a strong desire from teachers to address these issues but cited subject knowledge, lack of training and lack of access to resources, in relation to barriers to curriculum development in teaching topics like empire.

We hope that this podcast series can make a valuable and needed contribution to enabling teachers. Each podcast addresses a topic of ‘controversial history’ that potentially could be covered in a UK history curriculum. The T.E.A.C.H. report defined controversial history “where there is actual or perceived unfairness to people by another individual or group in the past. This may also be the case where there are disparities between what is taught in school history, family/community histories and other histories. Such issues and disparities create a strong resonance with students in particular educational settings.”(HA, 2007: 3)

The definition was to enable the report to be manageable and consistent. However this framing in some ways determines the nature of the historical topics which are the focus of discussion in the report. The authors themselves noted how the discussion over a working definition of what constituted an emotive or sensitive issue in history itself generated emotion and controversy. Broadly, issues are emotive and controversial when students are forced to confront brutality, inhumanity and injustice. However history also becomes emotive and controversial when past events have a resonance with current problems/debates faced by society in the present, including questions of identity. So an additional layer of controversy may exist where the subject matter is controversial because it links to contemporary social problems or challenges contemporary views and ideas, especially in relation to its enduring legacies such as racism and antisemitism. Given this dynamism the topics included in this series are not exhaustive and neither is each podcast intended as the final word.

Each podcast looks to explore the theme initially in personal terms before tracing historiographical debates and shifts. They look at ways that the themes have been explored in classroom contexts. The podcasts are intended as starting points. We hope that the themed ones will have broad appeal but also have one looking at controversial histories in the context of the primary classroom. Scope exists for further themed podcasts for example on the environment.

I will end by suggesting that the best way we approach our work in relation to controversial history is through a process of conversations and negotiations. These podcasts is intended as part of that process. Some of the controversy resides in the need for individuals and groups to adjust cherished relationships to narratives that inform a sense of belonging.

The work of Jon Levisohn offers one way of thinking though how to negotiate these narratives in a curricula sense. Suggesting the need to negotiate between the narratives that success resides on ‘how artfully, seamlessly, elegantly, insightfully the historian (and maybe the teacher) negotiates among and integrates the various elements that she encounters or introduces into the enquiry’ (2010, p18). This process involves being open as learners (teachers are learners), being modest about what we think we know, thinking responsibly about how narratives are juxtaposed, being creative with the way we work narratives into our curriculum and being bold.

We hope these podcasts offer courage to engage with productive conversations about these histories.

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