Restore humanity to studies

November 12, 1999

To improve teachers and students, humanities education must again be subject-led, says John Shaw.

Across the humanities there is too little contact between those who teach and research in universities and those who teach in schools. This is a tragedy for all, especially for those who teach at A level. It means that the culture of disciplines such as history and English is unnecessarily impoverished.

This is not the fault of teachers. For most, their passion for teaching originates with their subject. They want to continue to pursue the thing that they love. Constraints imposed by timetables and finance have always militated against maintaining an intimate engagement with new research. But now other, newer and more sinister factors intrude.

The content of humanities subjects has been marginalised as the jargon-laden language of education begins to dominate. "Generic transferable skills" have become the main objective. Ordering of syllabuses is determined by abstract learning outcomes rather than skills that studying history or English impart of themselves. Course content is no longer related in the first instance to the passions of the teacher.

The proposed use of modular examination in the new post-16 qualification will lead to further Balkanisation of the humanities. It will also worsen a trend towards production of the monomaniac student. In history, students do Hitler at GCSE, Hitler and the Holocaust at A level. At university, they are desperate to replicate this knowledge and have a real anxiety about moving beyond it. The 20th century's most interesting and morally problematic moment is reduced to a mechanical understanding of economic structure versus personal intention. But this is where the "key transferable skills" lay. The consequence is the Hitlerisation of history.

A-level teachers are pressured into improving the performance of a notional average student. A greater benefit accrues from turning a D student into a B student than from turning a B into an A. There is nothing wrong with this in itself. But it means that teachers get disproportionate rewards for devising formulaic strategies that improve results rather than students.

We need to get back to some kind of subject-led education. We do not have to give up on the idea of communicating skills to students. The genius of these subjects is that they always did this anyway. Skills grow out of doing the subject; they should not determine the shape and content of the subject as it is taught in school.

Intervention has to come about by re-creating subject-led teachers. Last year, I ran a training course for teachers on recent developments in university history. I found teachers who were dedicated and in love with their work but starved of the resources and time to pursue their lives as historians as well as teachers.

More fruitful than performance-related pay might be teacher sabbaticals as a reward for excellence. We will get better and more fulfilled teachers, and, at university, more roundly educated students. The humanities might again be humanist. John Shaw is a lecturer in modern history in the department of

historical and cultural studies, Goldsmiths College, University

of London.

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