History education needs a more explicit focus on historical consciousness if learners are to become capable of dealing with SA’s social problems, says the writer.

HISTORY may soon be a compulsory school subject up to Grade 12 in South Africa. A task team established by the country's minister of basic education made this bold recommendation in a report released in early June.
The task team credits history education with three grand tasks.The first is developing critical thinking skills, particularly those relating to evidence and the unique concepts necessary for becoming an academic historian. The second is to develop identity, with a focus on pan-Africanism and nation-building. The third is about social cohesion: the ability to transcend racial, class and ethnic barriers by recognising the problem of prejudice and the issues facing a multi-cultural society.

If history is taught correctly, the report argues, school-leavers should become capable of dealing with educational, social and political problems.

The task team draws on decades of post-conflict literature which has argued that history education is important for memory and identity formation. Since history education equals social cohesion, the logic follows that more history education will equal more social cohesion.

The problem is that history education as it is currently delivered may not achieve the desired outcomes. My ongoing fieldwork involves observing four racially diverse Grade 9 history classes in Cape Town, with learners who represent a range of social and economic statuses. The observations are taking place over the course of the academic year, interspersed by longitudinal interviews with teachers and learners.

The findings suggest that even when students are knowledgeable about historical events, they struggle to explain how these events shape contemporary society.

History education needs a more explicit focus on historical consciousness if students are to become capable of dealing with South Africa’s social problems. This focus would help students to construct a relationship between past events and present-day reality so they can understand why we are the way we are.

Developing historical consciousness would require a shift from what is currently happening. Take for instance the contents of the Platinum Social Science Learner’s Book, which is prescribed for Grade 9 history pupils in South Africa.

The textbook touches upon a number of important subjects, including human rights, racism and legal discrimination. It explores some of the turning points in the history of apartheid: the Sharpeville massacre, the Langa march, the Soweto uprising, and the release of Nelson Mandela.

The causes and consequences of historical moments are emphasised. Students are taught to understand not only the apartheid regime’s human rights abuses, but also the nature of the resistance to that regime, which led to demoracy in South Africa after a long struggle. However, the textbook’s lessons on apartheid end with the 1994 election.

While this is undoubtedly an achievement worth celebrating, the implication is that when apartheid ended in 1994, so did the poverty, racism, discrimination and violence that were aspects of the apartheid regime.

There is no discussion of the lasting impacts of apartheid, or any link between South Africa’s current problems and its recent past. It is left up to individual teachers to make those links.

Unsurprisingly, the teachers that I observe construct an historical consciousness in very diverse ways, even though they are all teaching the same set of historically accurate events.

For example, one teacher explained to his racially homogeneous class that their lack of diversity was a direct result of apartheid. Another compared the fascist approaches of Nazi Germany to that of the apartheid state and placed them both firmly in the past.

This is not a judgement on the historical consciousness these teachers present. But it is worth interrogating the diverse contemporary meanings that are being created around historical events, when historical consciousness is absent from the curriculum.

Even more interesting was the way in which the pupils, who are all around 14 years old, explained how they saw the relationship between past and present.

A number of students had a good understanding of apartheid events. But the only way they could explain the country's continued racialised wealth discrepancy was to state that black South Africans were lazy. Many did not draw upon structural or historical explanations when interpreting their own social reality.

One Xhosa-speaking black student who lives in a shack argued that apartheid had no lasting effects - because the white family whose home his mother cleans often speak to him kindly. Most of the students that I interviewed believed that the colonisation of South Africa was ultimately a positive thing because now we have “clothes, food and technology”. None of the students of any race believed that white people had any historic responsibility to address past wrongs.

These students were neither stupid nor ill-informed. So how should we make sense of their responses? Perhaps this is what social cohesion looks like in 2018. For the most part they were not angry about the past, because they don’t see the past as having a particular impact on their present lives. The past is a lesson to learn from, not something which stands in their way.

The question, though, is whether they are capable of dealing with educational, social and political problems if they view these problems as a historical. And if we discover that they cannot, then maybe we need to include some historical consciousness in the South African history curriculum before we make more of it compulsory. - The Conversation Africa

Robinson is a PhD candidate and research consultant, University of Oxford

The Conversation