Blogs > Cliopatria > Bad Idea Department

Jan 27, 2004 6:15 pm

Bad Idea Department

The Guardian had an article last week about plans by a UK educational body to 'sex up' the teaching of history by making it more vocational. It sounds remarkably dreary as well as stupid.
In an attempt to make the qualification more vocational, candidates will be able to junk the actual history and instead study the role of museums and galleries, traditional handicrafts, and the role of the media in popularising history. Among the more gruelling tasks students could be required to undertake would be, for example,"to design a brochure presenting a historical site to the public; devise an advertising campaign for a commemoration of a local event, or write about the management of a heritage site."
Oh what a good idea. Or they could just go to the movies and study how Mel Gibson looks in a kilt or Nicole Kidman in a prostehtic nose. The possibilities are endless.
Will teenagers have the sophistication to analyse the implicit agenda of a television programme? When they design a brochure for a historical site, will they have any idea of the multiple histories it contains? Without these fundamentals, the introduction of a vocational element at the expense of academic approaches a nefarious robbery of knowledge.
It's the old conflict between education as an instrumental good and education as an intrinsic good. It's depressing how automatically the first is taken to trump the second - how often the second isn't even taken into account.
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Ophelia Benson - 1/27/2004

Absolutely. And the Guardian article says as much, I think. The problem is that the suggested plans would skip the primary texts altogether and just go straight to the metastudy.

Very interesting that you should mention the 'how did people actually talk in 1750 and how do we know' question, because I was just thinking about that an hour or so ago, in thinking about Clay Jenkinson as Jefferson, commenting on Ralph's post.

I've made a few attempts at writing historical dialogue myself here and there. Of Keats' London, of Shakespeare's, of 1860s Iowa, etc. It is indeed very difficult and very interesting, both. I've also flinched and wanted to throw things when watching movies that make a mess of it.

So I approve baby-keeping-approach, but strongly favor bathwater-disposal.

Timothy James Burke - 1/27/2004

Actually, I teach a course called "Primary Text Workshop" that I've come to think of as a course in "applied history". The basic conceit is that I want students in the class to have to work with a particular body of primary texts but also compel them to make practical, applied use of them to a particular end that I designate. The first run of the course we worked on an annotated version of Frederick Lugard's The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa. The second run, coming in two years, I'm going to have the students prepare the supporting materials that would be needed for a three-dimensional simulation of colonial Philadelphia.

I have a number of different goals in pursuing this course. One is that I'd like to model a different form of process than an ordinary class, where students have to reach collective decisions about a group output, and have those decisions be responsive to both practical and intellectual concerns. That seems like a good process to teach given that it is closer to the professional lives most of our students will eventually pursue. I also think that there's a tremendous intellectual clarity that comes from having to decide what will actually work in communicating intellectual issues to some audience other than the professor. So on the colonial Philadelphia class, I want one student to work on creating dialogue trees for simulated persons in that virtual environment. There's a really fascinating methodological question embedded in that--how did people actually talk in everyday contexts in 1750 in Philadelphia, and how do we *know* that they did? (e.g., what written works from the period actually report on or reproduce speech patterns, and what makes us think so?) Having to actually think about a concretization of that issue is a step further that keeps the intellectual question intact but gives it a new tangibility and manageability.

I've thought about further iterations of the class, and another I'd like to think about is the preparation that might precede a work of historical fiction or a period-piece film of some kind.

If you do it right, it seems to me that the concept could be very rigorous and challenging, and intellectually respectable. I agree that the casual justification of everything in terms of its vocational utility is probably a very bad sign, but let's not throw out the interesting pedagogical baby with the bad vulgarization bathwater.

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