A side effect of learning history is that it can inspire critical citizenship – the active, engaged citizenship where individuals challenge the status quo because they recognise the role they play in creating political change. As a history teacher, my subject got to me. It got to at least one of my former students who took part in last week's student protests. How many other protesting students were affected by their high school history lessons? And what role will history play in our society in the future?
I got the following message on Friday evening after the student march to Parliament:
“We won. I was at today’s protest, and never have I been so proud to be part of the South African youth … I just wanted to say, thank you so much for four years of history at [school]. Even as tear gas was searing my throat and I could hear rubber bullets being fired, even as police vans chased after us, even as people fell around me, the inspiration from those lessons carried me through today.”
I never expected to receive a message like this. I was awed. I am so grateful to this young woman. Teachers teach because we want to inspire and share our passions. We have to believe that we do make a difference to some learners, but rarely is this ever confirmed. When news reaches us we hold onto it, treasure it and make it our precious. We are inspired once more to keep going. I was becoming cynical and losing hope. This young adult, making her own decisions to act and be part of something bigger than herself, has reignited the fight in me.
I struggled with myself about whether to write this piece or not. My link to the #FeesMustFall protest is tenuous at best. I did not go out to march with the students, and last Thursday, the second day of the protests, I did not suspend my lecture but continued as students banged on the doors outside. This was not my march. I was not there, and I can claim no role in actively supporting it. Despite this, in one small way, I did play a role by inspiring one student to act on what she stands for.
I am not trying to detract from the students’ achievements by accounting for their actions through examining their early influences. The students have achieved something incredible by their own volition and I respect their tenacity, spirit and courage. I am so grateful to them. Yet, I would be lying if I denied I had thought about the role their teachers might have played in their lives up to this point.
I read an article about some protesters that mentioned two former students of mine. It is only natural to wonder whether doing history at school played a role in their decisions. Finding out that one of my hundreds of students did indeed draw inspiration from my lessons is affirming and humbling. For at least one person out there, history is a subject that influenced her decision and actions in the #FeesMustFall protest. How many other students were inspired by high school history?
Many South Africans aren’t aware that the Department of Basic Education is considering introducing history as a compulsory subject. In 2014, during her budget vote speech, Basic Education Minster Angie Motshekga spewed some rubbish about the possible “benefits” of history as a compulsory subject, including “contributing to nation building, national pride, patriotism, social cohesion and cultural heritage”. Mash those words together and you get “state propaganda”.
Studying history is dangerous. The uninformed think it’s about learning a bunch of facts, like a story, and knowing specific dates and battles. Pigswill. History is about critical thinking and questioning everything, including yourself. It’s about re-evaluating your perspective, identity, prejudices and loyalties. In my case, it includes re-evaluating how justified I am in my cynicism. History is learning about society as it is, not what idealists want it to be. At the same time, history is learning about people who envisioned a different world, about their failures and victories in pursuing their goal. History is a subject that empowers. That is why autocratic governments fear it and try to control it.
History needs to be approached with care, and its study needs to be facilitated by real, competent history teachers. I would rather not have history taught at all, than history taught badly. It can too easily become a state weapon to brainwash our nation. Why duplicate the SABC’s role?
A real history teacher encourages critical, independent thought. Unfortunately, not all people who teach history are history teachers. Someone who spends history lessons teaching students to regurgitate facts without discussing their significance is a drill sergeant, not a real history teacher. Someone who enforces a particular political agenda without allowing robust, honest, fact-based class debates is a politician, not a real history teacher. Someone who teaches a deliberately sanitised, edited version of history, veering away from any controversial topic, is not a real history teacher – that’s a sell-out.
If history becomes compulsory until matric there will probably be many more students exposed to drill sergeants, politicians and sell-outs for longer periods than they already are in the junior years. This is just awful. However, more students will also be exposed to real history teachers, and that is where the government should be getting worried, and where my hope comes from.
A side effect of learning history is that it can inspire critical citizenship. Perhaps this is the inspiration my former student referred to in her message. I’m talking about the active, engaged citizenship where individuals challenge the status quo because they recognise the role they play in creating political change. They know it because they have come across countless examples in their years studying history.
When I taught history in high school I sometimes argued for my passion along the following lines:
“I’m a history teacher. Every single day I teach about events where people do horrible things to other people, all the time, throughout the ages. Every day, all day, I show images of brutality and cruelty, of cynical cartoons, of accounts of despair. It’s depressing. It can really get to you. BUT every day I also engage with the strength and resilience of the human spirit. Every day I learn about individuals making sacrifices, reaching out, forgiving, surviving and refusing to be oppressed. Often they succeed and live. Often they fail and die. But they do it anyway. Every day I engage with people willing to risk everything for something they believe in … It can really get to you.”
My teaching subject got to me. It got to at least one of my former students. How many other protesting students were affected by their high school history lessons? And what role will history play in our society in the future?
Unjust governments should fear history. There are fantastic, experienced, committed and inspiring history teachers in South Africa who have been teaching large classes in difficult circumstances for decades. These teachers and their subject must have left a mark on thousands of people who have left school, some of whom, surely, took part in the protest. And I’m sure they will continue with their inspiring work.
I do not want to see history as a compulsory subject in the Further Education and Training curriculum because history should not be taught to enhance ‘national pride’ or ‘patriotism’. However, should that happen, what my former learner’s message brought me was hope about the role history can play in young South Africans’ lives. I’m issuing a warning to our Department of Basic Education: Stop wasting energy and resources in researching the indoctrination benefits of history at school. Start focusing on giving learners the best teachers by raising the entrance requirements for education degrees, and start supporting the good teachers who still remain in the system by giving them professional freedom and removing unnecessary stress. Start holding education officials accountable for the state of the schools in their district. Start creating a system that works.
Realise that the student protests are the voice of an elite minority who managed to get access to tertiary education. What will you do when millions of teenagers start demanding quality education? Their role models and inspiration might well come from the subject you wish to make compulsory.
You want to brainwash our youth and create a docile nation? It’s not going to work. The youth see your propaganda, and raise you one #FeesMustFall protest. DM
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