History may soon be a compulsory school subject until 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 to 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 isn’t unique in its position. It 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’s 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 the 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.
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