Defend Truth


The History Ministerial Task Team fails to explain why compulsory matric history is necessary


Maryke Bailey is a history teacher who is taking a hiatus from full-time teaching. She has been involved in various education-related projects, including some sessional lecturing and delivering professional development programmes.

The History Ministerial Task Team’s report lists 15 primary recommendations to the Minister of Basic Education. Its very first recommendation is that history should be made compulsory in the Further Education and Training phase (Grades 10 to 12). Despite numerous readings of the report I am still plagued by one question: Why?

I struggled to zoom in on a clear, coherent, well-justified argument for the necessity of history at the Further Education and Training phase. The report often details the potential benefits of history as a subject, but benefits alone are not enough to establish necessity.

All subjects have benefits. And remember, history is already compulsory (as part of social sciences) from Grades 4 to 9 (roughly ages 10 to 15). The task team doesn’t need to persuade anyone that history has value and should be compulsory. No one was threatening to remove the subject from the upper primary and lower secondary levels. What the task team has to explain is why we should extend this compulsory period by three years. It has to explain what need Further Education and Training history will meet, and why this need is a priority in our context.

It is crucial that we have a clear understanding of what we aim to achieve with compulsory Further Education and Training history for three reasons.

First, we need to agree on whether such an outcome is so important that we should channel funds away from other education needs to support this course of action.

Second, once we’ve established its necessity and priority status, we need to explore whether there aren’t cheaper and simpler measures that could achieve the same outcome. Serious problems don’t always need expensive and complicated solutions.

Third, we need to hold the government accountable to ensure that the desired outcomes are met, and we can only do this if we know what we are working towards. Therefore, establishing why the task team recommended compulsory Further Education and Training history is important to focus the national debate and establish accountability.

We also need to question why the task team embarked on an extensive “time consuming” study to help inform its decision regarding compulsory history, but then ignored one of the key findings.

A substantial part of the report details various countries’ approaches to compulsory history. The “broad finding” from the study was “that most countries do not have compulsory history in the final phase of schooling, but that the majority of countries have compulsory history up to Grade 9 or the equivalent”.

In other words, our current approach falls in with global trends. The report mentions this finding in the study’s list of conclusions, but by ignoring the trend in the discussion following the list of conclusions, the task team actually misrepresents its own findings.

The “Lessons Learnt” discussion, replicated in the executive summary, creates the impression that the comparative study revealed no discernible trend. It limits its observations to the variety of curriculum models stating that there “is no single approach to compulsory history” and that approaches to compulsory history “vary from country to country”.

By failing to state that a clear trend emerged despite variation, and that our current approach follows this trend, the findings from the study are distorted. This leads to a narrow and problematic conclusion or “broad lesson”:

The broad lesson here is that were there to be a proposal to make history compulsory in South Africa, all the various contextual factors and concerns or challenges specific to South Africa would have to be carefully considered, for example: capacity, teacher training, content, budgetary implications, and planning. [page 40]

By simply ignoring the finding that most countries do not have compulsory Further Education and Training history, the task team sidesteps the need to argue against the global trend and ensures that it only needs to consider our own context.

The lack of engagement with the global trend on this issue is further emphasised when the task team clearly refers to global trends to argue for history not to be merged with social sciences or life orientation later in the report. I have to ask why the task team undertook such a detailed study meant to provide an “invaluable basis” for considering our approach to history, if it was not planning to engage openly with one of its main findings. Was the finding inconvenient? Does it point to a decided bias on the task team’s side regarding compulsory Further Education and Training history?

We could ignore the above questions and the distorted findings and still accept the “broad lesson” quoted above. After all, we really do need to consider our own context before we implement compulsory matric history, regardless of global trends.

But read the broad lesson again carefully. It does not argue that we need to consider our own context to determine whether we should make Further Education and Training history compulsory. By referring only to practical factors and challenges, the broad lesson only suggests that we need to consider contextual concerns to determine whether we could make it compulsory. If the report provided a clear argument for necessity in our context elsewhere, then this conclusion wouldn’t be a problem. But the conclusion reflects the task team’s overall focus on determining how best to implement compulsory Further Education and Training history rather than clearly establishing whether it is necessary in the first place.

The task team does provide an in-depth discussion on the benefits and aims of history after the comparative study. But as I said earlier, it is not enough to state the benefits. For example, the report mentions that history can promote human solidarity, and it repeats this benefit in its final recommendation. But the task team does not prove that history is the only or the best subject to promote human solidarity.

I’m sure we could argue that literature and the arts can have these benefits as well. The report also needs to convince us that an extra three years of history for everyone will have a significant impact on promoting human solidarity. And although various countries might implement compulsory Further Education and Training history with this aim, the report does not provide an example of where such a policy has actually achieved a better society.

I could only find one argument that dealt specifically with history’s importance in the final years of school, but it was used to motivate for a curriculum change. However, the task team repeats a sentence from this argument in its final recommendation, suggesting some link between this argument and its stance on matric history.

According to the report, the past determines the present, and knowledge of the past helps us to understand the present. Understanding the present allows us to address current social, economic and political challenges.

However, before the Further Education and Training phase, learners have a “low level of cognitive development”. Hence, they cannot truly understand important historical content and concepts and make the necessary links between these topics and the present. Therefore, certain vital curriculum topics should move from the earlier phases to the Further Education and Training phase.

I suppose the argument could also conclude that the benefits of history are not realised until the final three years of school when learners are at a higher level of academic maturity, therefore it should be compulsory for all.

The task team is not dominated by education specialists; it is largely made up of historians. The bibliography reveals this bias, with most articles and books dealing with historical content rather than with history education. Yet, very confidently and without evidence, the report makes judgment calls about Grade 7, 8 and 9 learners’ ability to comprehend certain information.

For example, it states that “Grade 7 learners are not developed to understand the content related to the transatlantic slave trade”. Really? The task team needs to explain why it asserts that learners in Grades 7, 8 and 9 are not at an acceptable level of cognitive maturity to deal with certain information. And if that is the case, what exactly should we teach in the earlier years?

Furthermore, if the task team meant this to be an argument for compulsory Further Education and Training history, then the report needs to link it to the comparative study and explain why most countries are happy to limit compulsory history to the cognitively immature years, just like we do at present.

How did this decision impact those countries and what can we learn from it? But no reference is made to the comparative study. At the very least the task team will need to direct us to a country that has compulsory Further Education and Training history and link this clearly with promising results in the country’s efforts to deal with “social injustice, poverty, race and class-based structural inequality”.

Without any explanation or evidence, this particular argument failed to persuade me that Further Education and Training history is necessary in our context and should be made compulsory.

I know that the last-mentioned argument is one of my own construction. But it was the closest I could come to an argument for Further Education and Training history’s necessity. The only other reasons I could find for making Further Education and Training history compulsory were logistical, not ideological.

For example, the task team found that history is not taught at all schools and perhaps it believes that by making matric history compulsory it would ensure that history is taught across the country. But there is a simpler solution if this is the driving issue. Make it compulsory for all schools to offer Further Education and Training history, but not for all learners to take it.

The task team also at times creates the impression that learners select subject “streams” such as the commerce stream or the humanities stream. Perhaps it believes that learners can only study subjects from these streams and that if learners choose the science stream they will not have any access to history unless it is compulsory. But learners can take any combination of subjects their hearts desire, as far as I’m aware. They are not limited to the “stream” they take.

It’s quite possible I’ve missed something. I’ve delayed writing this because I keep thinking that surely, surely, I’m missing something obvious. But I’ve looked over the report a few times now.

I can explain why the task team wants to reintroduce archaeology, why it wants to change the curriculum, and why it wants history to be an independent subject. I often don’t agree with the argument but I can pin down the exact premises with which I disagree. But I cannot explain how the task team reached the conclusion that it is necessary and a priority that history be made a compulsory matric subject.

In the future, when our education system is more robust and there is more money sloshing about, then I might advocate for compulsory Further Education and Training history. But right now our education system is in such crisis that we should only channel funds and resources to top priorities. We cannot afford to put money into large-scale experimental or enrichment projects without first exploring whether there are simpler or cheaper measures that would have the same outcome.

To entrench history as a matric subject based on a single report where the key recommendation does not clearly explain why it is necessary, is to allow yet another burden to be placed on our fragile education system for no good reason beyond political expediency. DM


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