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.

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