Letters to the Editors

The History Wars – A Teaching Toolkit?

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Written by Darren Poole

If you will indulge me, I am going to begin this article by stating something that is often unsaid in our ‘History Wars’: Our young people are wonderful.

I have been fortunate in my career to teach a large number of delightful students. I am always struck by how open-minded they are and how they want to engage in debate and discussion. In contrast to the stereotype of ‘woke’ fundamentalists, most of my students are curious and open to persuasion.

What then, is the problem? More importantly, what can we do about it?

As has been pointed out in many articles on this site, the difficulty lies with the small minority of people seeking to impose their agenda on others. These issues have been discussed before on this website – my contribution is to ask: what can be done? How can we help each other teach in a way that aids analysis and encourages thinking? How can we challenge one-dimensional History?

I would suggest some of the following approaches be taken within seminar discussion and during class debate. I’m sure many of you use these methods throughout your teaching. I thought it would be a good idea to begin to share good practice. I’m not claiming these approaches are original or a solution to all our problems, but they are a start. They may also help non-specialist Historians in schools and colleges generate fair discussion and argument. The most strident students may not alter their views but then ‘every seed planted’…

  1. Set the context: Whilst Gender, Race, Class and other tools of Historical analysis are useful in their own right, they can often result in a narrow understanding of the past. Setting the wider context is vital. For example, Churchill is criticised by many for the Bengal Famine but when set within the context World War Two, the Defence of Burma, threats to Allied shipping and a once in a generation storm, a more nuanced picture emerges. Does this change the overall judgment of History? Perhaps not, but it does show the complex, rather than simplistic, nature of events.
  2. Discuss the alternatives: Were there any? It is very easy to attack our historical figures but we often forget they are presented with problems that had no easy solutions. Often a ‘Hobson’s Choice’ had to be made. The Allied bombing campaign of World War Two is an example of a much-critiqued event but what else could have been done? As Jeremy Black has pointed out, early in the war it was the only way at the time that the British had of striking back at the Nazis.
  3. What was the other side doing? Rod Liddell once joked that, ‘If you think Churchill’s bad, you should see the other bloke!’ and it is very easy to focus on the negative aspects of Historical figures and ignore the roles of other actors in Historical incidents. For example, the US campaign in South Vietnam is often criticised but my own research has revealed how the Viet Cong brutalised their own people to such an extent that intervention was probably unavoidable and may even have been morally justified. African involvement in the Atlantic Slave Trade is another example of an oft-ignored topic.
  4. Who are the authors of the book or article that the students have read? Many of the critiques of History in the ‘History Wars’ are not by Historians. Whilst being admirable researchers in their own fields, these writers may have an overt political or social agenda. How does this distort their perspective?
  5. What sources have they used? Are they legitimate? I’m sure as Historians we engage with this question in our teaching all of the time but sometimes our students accept things at face value.
  6. Finally, prepare to be criticised. Whilst I am not naïve enough to expect people to sacrifice their careers to challenge our more radical learners, these students do need to be quietly confronted – if not for our benefit, then for the benefit of the majority of students in our classrooms who are desperate for balance and want to make up their own minds about events.

As I said at the start, the young people I teach are open to new ideas and are prepared to engage with these issues. What they often lack is the support, knowledge and perspective to counter some unpleasant agendas. Please let me know if you have anything else that you use in your sessions so that we can add ideas to our ‘toolbox’.

Dr Darren Poole teaches Military History at the University of Chester, the University Centre Shrewsbury and Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln. He is the author of Hunting the Viet Cong Volumes I and II (Helion Publishers) and his research interests cover counterinsurgency, American History and the views of so-called ‘ordinary’ people in warfare.

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Darren Poole