‘Move away from shallow history’

The task team set up by Angie Motshekga (left) has urged that the teaching of history should ‘not avoid areas of conflict facing our divided country’. (David Harrison)

The task team set up by Angie Motshekga (left) has urged that the teaching of history should ‘not avoid areas of conflict facing our divided country’. (David Harrison)

The school history curriculum must be reformed to include “problematic and controversial” subjects and themes in African history, to ensure that the purpose of making the subject compulsory up to matric is met.

This is according to the report from the history ministerial task team, released last week by the department of basic education.

The department established a ministerial task team in 2015.

In making its case for why history should be made compulsory, the task team said the way history is currently taught at schools is “sanitised” and makes the topics and themes on Africa too “touristy”.

The report said pupils are taught about indigenous, precolonial knowledge at junior grades and that they do not study African history when they are old enough to make “deep connections”.

Even though some aspects of precolonial history are taught in grades seven to nine, it is portrayed as a “happy story”.

“The consequences are that most of these students struggle at university because the content is pitched at a higher, sophisticated level — taking for granted that students have necessary skills to unpack it,” reads the report.

“To put it bluntly, the CAPS [curriculum assessment policy statements] curriculum sets up students for failure at university.”

A “conscious move away from this superficial history” would also provide a bridge between the history taught in grades seven to nine, the history taught in grades 10 to 12 and the history taught at universities.

“Problematic and controversial issues and themes in ancient history and precolonial history of Africa should not be avoided.

“For example, themes about the class, social stratification, kings and commoners, the status of women and workers in ancient history and also in precolonial history must be included,” the task team recommended.

The report said its work came about because Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga had spoken about the political pressure she was under to deal with the teaching of history.

“The concern seemed to be that our young people do not appreciate our country’s history and that of the African continent,” reads the report.

The task team has recommended that history should be a compulsory subject from 2023.

Currently history is compulsory only up to grade nine and it is optional in grades 10, 11 and 12.

According to the report, many schools in grades seven to nine “avoid” teaching South African history, especially apartheid and liberation history, even though it is in the curriculum.

“As we have argued, the historical content offered in schools should not avoid areas of conflict facing our divided country,” reads the report. “We run the risk that we will return to the pre-1994 era when the African past was left out of the curriculum and past events were fabricated, exaggerated or evaluated by dated standards devoid of historical understanding.

“The history of Africa needs to be given the depth and breadth it deserves. The archaeological past needs to be reintroduced at a higher level, and dealt with in a more sophisticated manner.”

The task team also identified that it is crucial that the department invest in the training of history teachers because not all qualified teachers are able to teach history “satisfactorily”.

The report said the fact that the department did not offer bursaries for trainee history teachers implied it does not recognise the importance of history education. “There has to be a restoration of the status of history within the department of basic education as it is the case with science, mathematics and technology. Bursaries need to be provided for trainee history teachers so that the subject is not taken as being academically lightweight by all and sundry.”

According to the report, universities currently train on average 6 484 students annually to teach history.

It recommended that universities collaborate with the education department on teacher development and that prospective teachers should study history as one of their majors at undergraduate level.

“We want to produce teachers who are knowledgeable about the content and not just the pedagogy,” reads the report.

The report is to be presented to Parliament and the Council of Education Ministers, which includes the nine provincial education MECs.

The department is also seeking public comment on the report before any policy changes are made.

Bongekile Macupe

Bongekile Macupe

Bongekile Macupe is the education reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She is an award-winning journalist who has extensively covered both basic and higher education in South Africa. Her coverage includes #FeesMustFall, the case of Michael Komape and education in rural areas.  Read more from Bongekile Macupe

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