The Narrow History Project

In the early 1990s I had the great joy of teaching history in Zimbabwe.

At that time the Zimbabwe dollar was still worth 25 Australian cents, there was optimism about ZANU PF and the leadership of Robert Mugabe, and the land was breathtakingly beautiful.

In the store room of my school were piles of decrepit history books, the remnants of an earlier period. They were written during the time when the nation was called Rhodesia, and a minority white population had announced a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Within these books the Shona and Ndebele people were largely referred to as ‘labour’ and the history was constructed to tell the story of the success of the nation under white economic leadership. White rule equated to ‘stable government’, and thus to ‘the best outcome for all’.

On the desks in my classroom were the official ZANU PF histories of Zimbabwe. Within the pages of these texts were details of the rise of local African populations such as the Rozvi. They told the story of the struggle of the Shona and Ndebele peoples against ‘oppressive colonial rule’ and the final chapter of the second book was totally dedicated to ‘Mugabe the hero’, the ‘saviour’ of Zimbabwe.

It would be clear to any outsider that both sets of texts were terribly flawed. We thus had interesting classes comparing the descriptions of events and movements in both texts. In these comparisons we uncovered the many challenges that exist in the teaching of history.

Something within me loves The Big History Project. It is an attempt to put the whole story together, to tell the narrative of the history of our planet. Context is a very important thing for the historian. We can better understand events by developing a grasp of the cultures and decisions that preceded them.

But The Big History Project is like the Rhodesian and ZANU PF texts in my history classroom.

It is history told from one perspective.

I can hear the immediate rebuttal. No, that’s not true. The project purposefully allows for a variety of voices.

And that is accurate. There are many voices allowed.

But the overarching categories are established for the student. The basic metaphor for history, for example, is development. It is thus a socially progressive history and students are not alerted up front that not all historians see history this way. Religious and cultural traditions are reduced in importance whilst empiricism is promoted as a methodology. Philosophical positions such as Idealism, Monism and Dualism barely rate a mention. Physicalism is King.

This might not matter to the average Australian, but it should.

We swallow given categories in history all too easily. The current debate that the European Dark Ages were not really so dark, and that the Enlightenment was a not really so illuminating, is an interesting example of why categories matter. Terms carry assumptions. Accepted truths. Generations in Africa – and Australia -were taught that indigenous people were primitive. It is essential that students are taught to not simply accept categories.

The Big History Project is backed by the finances of Bill Gates. He has partnered with David Christian to create a brave new world of historiography for our classrooms. Now the Board of Studies in NSW is establishing a new subject based on this investment. Suddenly we wonder if the investor is writing the way we think.

Financial investment is quite enamouring. Well created websites are beautiful. They make the job of the educator easy.

Be trained by us. Just deliver the course this way.

I am all in favour of assisting students to think about the big picture. I am not in favour of Mr Gates or his academic favourites setting our curriculum.

While we live our daily lives

My brother has recently returned from Africa. He loves to visit volcanoes and thus went to Sao Tome and Principe. He had hoped to go to DR Congo but the civil unrest there makes this a very dangerous place and thus he had to abandon the idea.

Like my brother, I enjoy visiting other cultures, and, like my brother, I can pick and choose where I go.

Of course, millions of people do live in the DR Congo.

I heard a BBC report by Will Storr on DR Congo last night. I don’t really know what to write about it. The violence against everyone is awful, and the violence against women is particularly horrific.

As a father with three daughters, as a principal of a girls’ school who spends each day trying to work out how to get as many young women as possible to flourish, as a husband and son, and as just another person who shares common spaces like streets and parks and shopping centres with women and girls of our community I think I need to do something.

Will Storr’s BBC report features an interview with a rapist. It is horrible to listen to, but it provides an important insight into the mindset of some men who operate with freedom. Significantly, we also hear from the women.

DR Congo is an independent state. It has a dysfunctional government and warlords controlling vast spaces and resources. It thus has mobs of young men with guns roaming the countryside. The BBC reported the situation as follows in May 2012.

Despite a peace deal and the formation of a transitional government in 2003, people in the east of the country remain in terror of marauding militia and the army.

The war claimed an estimated three million lives, either as a direct result of fighting or because of disease and malnutrition. It has been called possibly the worst emergency to unfold in Africa in recent decades.

The war had an economic as well as a political side. Fighting was fuelled by the country’s vast mineral wealth, with all sides taking advantage of the anarchy to plunder natural resources.

As long ago as March 2010 Christian Aid called upon key leaders in the UK to act to end the use of rape as a weapon of war (see press release ‘Ongoing presence of armed groups in eastern Congo fuels use of rape as a weapon of war’). They have a series of podcasts and articles regarding this issue that are helpful in providing some ways to act against this horror.

Their capacity to change things is limited. As an NGO they  help the victims and lobby governments. At least they do this consistently and thoroughly, and, I think, they, and other groups like them, deserve our attention.


Conversations with my daughters (4)

My youngest daughter is completing her HSC.

She is currently writing an assignment on ‘History and Memory’ and reading The Fiftieth Gate. It is a mixture of memoir and recount about the Holocaust. One of her self-selected supplementary texts is the film Hotel Rwanda, about the brave Paul Rusesabagina, the man who saved all of those people who fled to his hotel from the genocide in Kigali.

Paul Rusesabagina said of the film that it couldn’t possibly show the horrors of those days:  the rapes, the killing.

On the ABC tonight I heard about Bosco Ntaganda, who is currently operating in The Congo as one of the ‘most wanted’ warlords. More ‘unrivaled’ violence.

And there was a boy who died this week from a random king hit in Kings Cross…

Each of our visits to Africa: to Zimbabwe in the 1990s when we lived and worked in Harare, or more recently to Tanzania visiting the Katoke Trust schools and work, has been to communities that are vibrant and dynamic, to hospitable people.

Holly is just like anyone else who has had a personal experience, or who seeks to be empathetic. She does not see the people who die as film extras, or as distant shadows. She sees them as our neighbours.

How do we do more on a consistent basis in schools to close the space between us and the people who live in such circumstances? The students want to do the best possible thing to assist – and not out of post-colonial guilt. They hope for safety and significance for other people. And parents, rightly, want their own young adults to be safe and to undertake any such connection wisely.

I am grateful to my predecessor at PLC Sydney that we have links with orphanages in Vietnam and schools in Timor-Leste. We are now connecting to work in Kolkata where children are being freed from sex-slavery and to the Mizoram province in India where we have much to learn. And we have links with Katoke where wonderful things are happening.

Of course schools can’t connect with the dangerous places. And we need to focus on a few projects rather than cast the net too widely. And with each project there needs to be parameters and clear expectations as to the nature of the relationship.

Perhaps I say to my daughter ‘Thank God for the Salvos’, and for World Vision, and for The Katoke Trust…

There are whole communities addressing these needs. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

Globalisation and Student Learning in Tanzania

Student Debate at Katoke, 2011

In July 2011 I had the privilege of travelling to the Katoke-Lweru Secondary School, on the western coast of Lake Victoria,Tanzania. I went with other educators and my family, to conduct professional development with and for principals and teachers of East Africa. As part of our visit we took part in a debate on globalisation with the senior students of Katoke-Lweru Secondary School.

Numerous citizens in the Katoke-Lweru region experience poverty. Wolfgang Sachs noted in 1992 that ‘poverty’ should be renamed as either frugality, scarcity or destitution. A frugal life is a positive and respectful one, where the person chooses to be poor. Scarcity results from flood, fire or other disaster. It brings about poor conditions for a time, but a plentiful harvest or economic turn for the good can end the troubles. It is the grind of destitution, relentless systematised powerlessness, that destroys people.

In the Katoke region some people experience destitution. Their harvests are small and the prices they receive for them are low. Regular meals are not guaranteed, medical care is limited, education is relatively costly.

I should not have been surprised that the topic for our debate was Is globalisation harmful to the younger generation? These teenagers live in a community that wonders why their hard work does not reap rewards. They also see the possibilities that open markets bring. I should also have not doubted the capacity of these students to consume and construct knowledge. It was clear from the discussion in the debate that these young people want to participate fully in the new global community. They are self-disciplined and they argue with clarity and feeling.

Education is certainly essential to the future of this region and the principal and staff at Katoke are doing an outstanding job. It is, however, very difficult for these Tanzanians to improve their economic standing. Even though Katoke is one of the best resourced schools in the area, the strange structure and order of subjects in the state curricula, the fact that students change from learning  in Kiswahili in Year 6 to learning in English in Year 7, and the limited access they have to resources, all counts against them.

At the present time, only a few are able to matriculate to University.

PLC Sydney students are seeking to develop positive and reciprocal relationships with the students of Katoke. We hope to send our first team of parents and students there in 2013. The task of building a school that changes the outcomes not only for the students who attend it, but for local citizens, is a long and arduous one. It will be years before significant numbers of graduates  return with their skills to the western shores of Lake Victoria. Associate Professor Alan Watson received the Order of Australia last week because of his work alongside local educators such as Pastor Habimana, and principal Mr Sid Moir in establishing Katoke. He is the change he is seeking to see in the world. Katoke is a project shared by churches, universities and citizens in both Tanzania and Australia. It is a young and vibrant school, and Associate Professor Watson is a worthy recipient of the honour he received on 26th January, 2012.