‘Seeing the whole board’: The case for a more diverse history curriculum. 

Firstly, when I used the word diverse in my title, that was to get your attention. I used it because it’s become the generally accepted term when discussing including comparatively neglected stories in our history curriculums. However, I actually prefer to use the word ‘representative’ for reasons which will hopefully become clearer as you read on. I’m therefore going to switch between using ‘diverse’ and ‘representative’ a bit and will sometimes use them alongside each other to avoid confusion.

To start with, this post isn’t about social justice. That’s not because I don’t care about it, nor because I think that all the arguments that people make for diversifying the history curriculum on those grounds are invalid, but I do think that these arguments tend to dominate the debate. I want to focus now on an alternative case for making our history curriculums more representative or diverse, that I don’t see being advanced nearly as frequently.

What is that argument? Well, my fundamental point is that teaching more diverse/representative history is teaching better history.

My most important priority as a History teacher is that my students walk out of my classroom with a better idea of how society in 16th century England worked, the causes of the Indian Great Rebellion of 1857 or of the impact of the ideals of the French Revolution, than they had when they came in. I have found that ensuring the content I cover reflects the diversity of the people involved in each of these cases assists me hugely in achieving that aim; indeed I’m increasingly of the mind that it may very well be essential to it.

The first reason why it is so important is because including diverse individuals, perspectives, places and events in the History we already teach is one of the easiest ways of preventing our students from coming away with misunderstandings, or making generalisations about the periods that they’re studying.

So it is worth my while, when I’m looking at society in early modern England, to include consideration of the presence of people from across Europe and the wider world working, trading and settling down, the moral panic caused by an epidemic of female cross-dressing in Jacobean London or the underworld of the gloriously named ‘she-intelligencers’.  This is because including these people alongside the familiar parade of peers, parliamentarians and puritans tells my students something interesting about how a wider range of early modern people lived and thought. But crucially it also does a lot to puncture the reflexive assumption that history is essentially a march towards the sunlit uplands of ‘now’ and that therefore all preceding eras were necessarily ‘worse’, less enlightened, less tolerant and less socially diverse than our own.

I’ve also found that making the history I teach more representative has also been very helpful in improving my students’ historical reasoning. So for example, when I got utterly fed up with students seeming to think that a row over greased gun cartridges was the only cause of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, I adjusted the following lesson to include a significant chunk of time looking at the experience of Indian rulers such as the Rani of Jhansi. This meant that by the end of it they were talking in much more depth about a greater range of causes: including the Doctrine of Lapse, power struggles between the East India Company and the Indian elites and residual loyalty towards the Mughal rulers.

The key here is that, by making the content we teach more representative of the individuals involved in historical events; their impact and the range of attitudes and motivations they had, we’re giving them the knowledge they need to see more than just a narrow perspective of events.

This in turn gives them the tools they need to understand a historical process in much greater detail and to ensure that the arguments they form rest upon stronger foundations because they cover a much greater range of the actors and actions that shaped events. To borrow a phrase from ‘The West Wing’, they can now ‘see the whole board’.

Beyond what we already teach. 

Ok, so here’s where it gets a little more controversial, because as good as making the history you already teach more representative is, I think we need to go further still. When we’re planning our curriculums I think we could stand to ask ourselves the questions, are the things we are choosing to include the best and most revealing stories that we could be telling about particular eras, and what are we losing by choosing to exclude the narratives that don’t make the cut?

I’ll explain what I mean by telling you a story from when I was at my previous school, about the time I got a bit carried away whilst reading a book and completely overhauled my Year 8 teaching.

The KS3 curriculum (unfortunately only two years of it) was a pretty straightforward chronological sweep through British History, which meant that by the start of Year 8, they hit the 17th century. Now during the summer in which I was asked to have a go at revising the scheme of work for that part of the course I also happened to be reading a pretty revolutionary book called ‘Global Crisis’ by Geoffrey Parker. This book is a global history of instability in the 17th century, and it’s particularly interesting in that Parker uses scientific data to prove that there was a disruption in the climate at the start of the century and then tracks how chaos ensued across the world for the subsequent 500 pages.

Now I was pretty blown away by this; it was one of the most exciting arguments I’d read in quite some time and that wasn’t necessarily because of its topicality but because it managed to stay true to the specificity of each separate regional crisis, while arguing that there was a pattern that still made some kind of sense of the whole.

The result of this was that when I sat down and looked at the coverage of the 17th century in our scheme of work I did begin to wonder, while the Gunpowder Plot and the Great Plague were all pretty interesting to study, were they really the absolute best stories I could be telling about a century that also included the collapse of China’s Ming dynasty, the Thirty Years War, the near fatal weakening of the Mughal and Ottoman empires, and especially where these events could be seen as part of a pattern of social and political unrest of which our own Civil Wars were a part?  Was our curriculum really true to the 17th century?  Was it a representative account?

So I cut out Guy Fawkes and the plague doctors and replaced them with lessons that explored the 17th century as an era of crisis which was expressed in a British context, but where these national events were part of a broader story. I did this because I thought that it gave students a better idea of what the 17th century was all about. Now it’s possible that I might equally have realised that aim with a detailed depth study of political radicalism across different groups and social classes during the English Civil Wars and Interregnum, or an enquiry on the rise and fall of the witch-craze. However, the important thing was to sit down and ask myself those crucial questions about how fully I was representing a particular era or historical process or problem.

And that’s the key point, we have limited curriculum time and a whole host of other restrictions including the demands of the National Curriculum and exam board specifications, so it’s incredibly important that we use the freedom that we have wisely; and that requires making difficult decisions about what to include and almost more importantly, what to exclude. The reason why I focused on diversity is because I think it is a constituent part of faithfully representing what history is made up of, both as a body of knowledge and as a discipline that is constantly uncovering, re-interpreting and, let’s be honest, arguing furiously over interpretations made and stories told. 

And as a teacher, what I have increasingly tried to do is to consider, is this the most important story I could tell about this historical period or is this just what is familiar to me? Now I’m not knocking familiarity, I’ve just finished my first year as HoD and believe you me I have no intention of going back to my school and ripping up all the schemes of work we currently use, firstly because I’m very tired and secondly because I don’t want to have a riot on my hands.

But when there is time and you do sit down to think about your curriculum in more detail I would argue that making it more representative of the complexity of the past will do wonders for the students’ knowledge and understanding of it, and will do greater justice to the discipline itself.