History education in an era of fake news

I’ve been thinking for a while about documenting some reflections on my experience of studying and learning from History in the Apartheid regime. In this autobiographical essay, I examine some History education approaches I’ve observed and the value of introducing, developing and fostering good research skills in an era of fake news. A recent social media conversation brought my intention into the open.

Simon Horrocks: The arts & humanities regularly come in for a rough ride from those who would prefer a more instrumentalist education system but if the last 24 hours in the UK prove anything its that everyone would benefit from a greater understanding of history AND semiotics. Anna Page: I've been thinking this for years, it is why certain types of government try to eliminate / whitewash certain history topics in the curriculum as they don't want us to understand the nuances of the full story. Reflective blog post on learning history in apartheid regime coming... Simon Horrocks: I look forward to that post Anna - it's a bit exhausting right niow but keeping the momentum of these discussions going will be important.

Twitter exchange with Simon Horrocks, 8 June 2020

Please note: the use of the terms ‘Black’, ‘Coloured’, ‘Indian’ and ‘White’ in the following account records the racial categories which were codified by the South African government in the Apartheid era and were familiar to me as a child. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coloureds.

A personal history…

I grew up in Cape Town during the Apartheid era, my primary and secondary schooling happened between 1975 and 1986 after a year at pre-school. In those days the Group Areas Act was in full force, to “maintain the status quo of white supremacy” (South African History Online, 2019). We lived in a White, mainly English speaking suburb (the first ‘garden city’ in South Africa) which had 3 co-educational English primary schools, 1 co-educational Afrikaans primary school (which later closed) and 1 co-educational English secondary school. The only black people who lived in the area were ‘live in domestic servants’ if the house had accommodation for servants (a permit was required), otherwise they travelled with their pass (often long distances in crowded transport) to work every day. As a young child I began to become aware of these rules in the year I started school when my family employed Elsie Jonas to clean our home one day a week (she had other cleaning jobs on other days). I’m thankful my mother instilled good manners in us: we were expected to treat Elsie with respect and had to tidy our bedroom beforehand so she wouldn’t have too big a task to clean it.

Our school buildings were smart, very new (my primary school was only 2 years older than me) with spacious well equipped classrooms, a large hall with a stage, sports field, large tarmaced playground marked out with sports pitch lines and best of all a well stocked library, where we had weekly ‘library lessons’ from our earliest days at school (even before we could read and write, we had ‘story time’ in the library). I’ve written before about how we were taught beginner research techniques from primary school age in that library, where we were introduced to the Dewey decimal system to help us find books in the catalogue, given short research topics and asked to find at least three reliable sources of information for our projects. This was taught as a basic building block for our education, regardless of the subjects we later chose to study in secondary school. I realise it was a privilege to receive such good quality grounding in the basics of research at primary school, it was rare in South Africa for black and coloured children to have such facilities and teaching in their schools as “White learners were taught subjects that led towards higher education and superior skilled and leadership roles in society …. Black learners, on the other hand, were taught subjects that contained and limited their horizons of opportunity.” (Karllson, 2004).

In Sub A and Sub B (the first two years at primary school after I attended the pre-school next door in 1974, now called Grades 1 and 2) we were taught to read, write and do basic arithmetic, with plenty of creative play and music.

In Standards 1 – 5 (now Grades 3 – 7) we had lessons covering several subject areas: English, Afrikaans, Mathematics, History, Science, Geography, Art, Music, Sewing and Knitting (girls), Woodwork (boys) and Physical Education. Athletics, netball, rounders, tennis were sports I recall doing, boys did cricket and rugby instead of netball, swimming lessons were at another primary school as ours didn’t have a pool at the time.

History was one of my favourite subjects. We were taught that the Cape was settled by White Europeans finding a sea route to the East rather than the overland route to India and China for spices, sugar and fine cloth: the names and dates of Barthomeu Dias 1488, Vasco da Gama 1497 and Jan van Riebeeck 1652 are ingrained in my mind even now. In Geography class, I recall tracing a map of Africa and being asked to carefully colour the edges blue showing the sea and land, then colouring and labelling the map with the different countries, revealing the colonisation of the continent by the Portuguese, Dutch, British, Belgians and Germans. We learned about the Slave trade and something of the influence it had on the culture, ethnicity and cuisine of South Africa. We also learned a little about the Khoisan people who were at the Cape before the white settlers arrived (they were referred to as Bushmen and Hottentots in our lessons) and the migration south of the various Bantu tribes (such as the Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho) as White settlers moved north.

In the largely “didactics tradition in South Africa” (Le Grange, 2010) we were taught using printed textbooks, lined exercise books for writing in, chalk on traditional blackboards (which were actually green), overhead projectors and occasionally films. The films were shown in a dedicated room where I recall watching government information films about how to brush your teeth and the damage done to lungs and teeth by cigarette smoking which made such a strong impression on me I’ve never taken up smoking.

In 1976 when protests broke out in response to the imposition of Afrikaans as the main language of instruction in black schools, the apartheid government killed 176 protesting school children in Soweto (a township near Johannesburg), triggering strikes and riots in other cities, including some townships on the Cape Flats in Cape Town. Elsie, who lived in Gugulethu, a black township, told my parents about her fears for her children, especially regarding their safety getting to school. She wanted to send her 13 year old daughter by bus to Xhosa relatives in the much quieter King Willliamstown in the Eastern Cape area so Miriam could continue her schooling in a more peaceful district, and was saving the money for the fare. My parents and other people she worked for loaned Elsie money towards the fare (which was paid off gradually through her wages). I was told the basics of this situation at the time in a matter of fact way by my parents, and wondered about Miriam being far away from her parents because they wanted her to complete her school education. I was becoming aware that black and coloured children had a very different educational experience from my privileged State education for white children as I had Coloured friends in Sunday School at the Cathedral (St George’s, in Cape Town) and we visited them in their District Six home (before the multi-racial melting pot of District Six was controversially cleared and demolished to become a whites only area). At that age I had no conception of the Black Consciousness Movement whose “education activists and theorists” (Motala & Vally, 2002, p178) were inspired by illegal copies of Friere’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed‘ (which was banned in South Africa), and school boycotts by some Black children which were happening in response to the Apartheid regime. I had no appreciation for the paradoxes involved – was it better to have some education, even if deficient and only leading to limited opportunities, reinforcing the hierarchical, race driven status quo or to leave formal education, risking job opportunities (and possibly getting a criminal record or killed) to campaign for parity with White education. I didn’t yet know much about the “history of political and economic marginalisation and exploitation” (Gathara, 2020) suffered by Africa at the hands of colonial rulers and post-colonial governments.

Making history…

In my final (Standard 5) year at primary school (1981) the South African government celebrated 20 years of the country being a Republic. Schools were expected to mark the occasion with special events (I recall some written work in class and the singing of ‘Die Stem‘ during a special Assembly in the school hall) however my English parents weren’t too keen to make a big fuss about it. They were closely involved, via the Cathedral, in helping provide support to people living in squatter camps in the Cape Flats so were aware of the injustices suffered by many people because they were not White. One rainy Cape winter Saturday night in 1977 my parents had received a phone call from the Dean of Cape Town asking for their help. They told my elder brothers to look after us while they took our VW Combi to help transport people, whose squatter camp had been destroyed by the security forces, to a church hall for shelter and food. Later I vividly remember the Cathedral gave a temporary home (tents in the grounds for several weeks) to some displaced people and in the seats below the gallery for “three weeks of instant community living” (King, 1996, p52) to another group of people whose squatter shacks had been removed, an event described movingly by the Dean in his book ‘A Good Place to Be’.

During Standard 5 our class had Xhosa lessons from our White male teacher Mr Barendt, who was quite fluent in the language. I can still remember the words of one song (a greeting song). I was able to shyly sing it to Elsie (who was Xhosa), which made her laugh.

Molweni Nonke, Ndiphilile unjani, Siya impilo enkosi, Kunjani Kuwe
Rough translation:
Hello everyone, I’m fine how are you, we thank you and good health, how are you

Curriculum and perspectives in history…

I was starting to read newspapers regularly in my final years at primary school (The Argus and The Cape Times were the English papers my family purchased, later my father also had The Guardian and Observer posted to him from England), my English literature and History classes were also beginning to teach us how to weigh up sources of information and the motives behind them, though in a sanitised way (we were never given anything too upsetting to discuss), so my parents’ muted response to the 20th anniversary of the Republic celebrations was another moment of enlightenment as I started to consider the different viewpoints and voices I was discovering. I compared what I was learning in school with what I was observing and hearing in every day life, including radio news reports and listening to a local Indian music programme on Saturday mornings. I discovered that my parents could only vote in local municipal elections as residents, they could not vote in national elections as they did not have South African citizenship (they both retained their British passports). Sometimes when it was election time and posters were put up on every lamp post on Forest Drive (the main road through our suburb), I could tell by things my father said as we drove past that he didn’t approve of particular parties or candidates.

In 1982 I started secondary school at Pinelands High School (Standards 6-10, now Grades 8-12). In the first year it was compulsory to do the following wide range of subjects: English, Afrikaans, Mathematics, Biology, Science (physics and chemistry), History, Geography, Physical Education and Home economics (girls) or Woodwork (boys). We could choose optional extra subjects: I did Art and Music, there was also Latin, Typewriting and Accountancy. In Standard 7 we could drop Home economics or Woodwork.

I continued to enjoy History lessons. I had good teachers who encouraged enquiring minds within the limitations of the Apartheid curriculum designed for White children. Two history teachers stand out in my memories. My standard 6 History teacher, Mr Jackson, was an energetic and inspiring character, with great love of his subject. He made the lessons come alive. It was probably in my Standard 8 or 9 year that Mr Jackson was called up for his repeat military service: White South African men had compulsory “national service or diensplig” (Baines, 2008) for 2 years after school, followed by another 3 – 6 months 10 years later. As a pacifist against the South African government military action in Angola, he refused his call up, so was removed from the school and made to work in a Government archive for a year (at least they made use of his history training, though we lost a good teacher as he didn’t return to the school).

In Standard 8 we narrowed down our subjects to 6 matric subjects which had to include English and Afrikaans. I chose History, Maths, Art (including Art History) and Graphic Art to study through to Standard 10.

In my final school years, my history teacher was Mr Hughes who had a calm, measured and somewhat dry approach to the subject but with the ability to emphasize important points in a way which held my attention. He taught us some critical evaluation techniques to weigh up what was known from different sources, not just the prescribed History textbook. I realise he was teaching us how to recognise the hidden propaganda messages in different artefacts such as articles, descriptions and textbooks, to try and counteract the selectiveness of the curriculum. In a qualitative study of memory accounts by a small number of people who were taught in apartheid era schools, Jenni Karlssohn noted that “subjects such as History were criticised primarily for how the past was portrayed selectively to exclude certain stories and voices rather than for having a doctrinaire approach to apartheid ideology” (Karlssohn, 2004).

Despite this caveat, the South African history curriculum for White children at the time opened a door to understanding historical themes, eras and concepts. We spent half the year examining South African history and half the year studying ‘rest of the world’ history, mainly concentrating on Western history. It wasn’t just a series of dates, events and facts, though timelines were used as tools to help place events in a sequence and context, we also learned cause and effect – what happened and some of the reasons leading to historical events. Learning about both South African and European history helped place the South African contribution to world events into a bigger contextual timeline, showing how events in different countries were interlinked. We studied feudalism, the Renaissance in Europe, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the unification of Italy, the colonisation of North America (mostly concentrating on USA: independance, civil war including that the USA had a slave history and separatist policies too). We examined the terms of nationalism, fascism, communism, self-determination and democracy, including a bit on the Suffragette movement. We studied World War 1 (WW1) and World War 2 (WW2) in detail, touched on Far East history (mainly relating to its connection with South Africa for trade, though also Japanese involvement in WW2, then Western involvement in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, plus Western involvement in the middle East leading to the Israel/Palestine situation).

In South African history we explored in more detail some of the early European settlement period we had learned about in Primary school, the change from a Dutch to a British colony in 1803, the Great Trek by the Afrikaner settlers and clashes with Xhosa and Zulu peoples over land, the Boer War, the Union of South Africa, its involvement in WW1 and WW2, the emergence of Black and Asian politicians (in my matric year we studied the founding of the ANC, we also learned a bit about Mahatma Gandhi) and South Africa becoming a republic in 1961. It was when preparing for our matric examinations that the control and limitations of the Apartheid curriculum even for privileged white children were starkly illuminated for me, as I explained in my April 2016 blog post ‘Libraries and homework in the internet age’:

“my practice examination essay on the African National Congress in preparation for my Matric was a personal turning point because my history teacher gave it an outstanding mark and asked me to “please not write like that in the examination” as the school would be investigated for teaching us to question the official apartheid government story about the ANC (he said it with some pride – he was clearly pleased with me). It was a sobering realization of the stark divisions in that country where equal opportunities for a good education did not exist because of a terrible ideology.” (Page, 2016)

It was at that point that I realised I didn’t want to live in a country which treated the majority of the population as lesser people because of their ethnic background, with a privileged few having more rights, freedoms and riches than everyone else. I knew it was idealistic to believe that any country existed without such stark inequalities but many other countries did not have racism codified into law as explicitly as Apartheid South Africa, though their underlying structures and cultural practices limited equality.

I had been a Brownie then a Guide, and although Girlguiding South Africa Brownie packs and Guide companies were segregated by local area (caused by Apartheid), they were organised in wider districts which covered white, coloured and black areas. This meant that larger Guiding events such as the 75th anniversary celebration in 1985 at a local sports stadium and the 75th anniversary camp and annual district camps were multi-racial, with patrols of 6 Guides often mixed, so we got to know each other’s customs and cultures a bit through the various communal activities (putting up tents, cooking, orienteering, swimming, cleaning latrines, campfire sing-alongs and games).

Partly because of mixing with people of other races socially at the Cathedral and in Guides, parental minor involvement in social justice activities through the Cathedral, along with skillful History, English and Art teachers who encouraged my wider reading, I was acutely aware of my privilege (including the choice to travel elsewhere). I realised that my view of racial discrimination as unjust was not universally held or was ignored by my peers, many of whom had given up History at the end of Standard 7 in preference for other subjects. I was beginning to appreciate that a multitude of historical perspectives of world and South African histories existed, not just the sanitised, dry and sometimes contradictory viewpoints of the Apartheid curriculum.

Contrasting history curricula…

When I moved to England, aged 19, I noticed the underlying prejudice and racism in some aspects of British life (including TV sitcoms), it was not what I had rather naively expected. For the first couple of years I was working (as an apprentice pipe-organ builder) in Brixton and living in Hackney, both multi-cultural suburbs with visible deprivation and war damage, occasionally visiting my retired maternal Grandparents in their comfortable country bungalow in Dorset. Over the next few years (including starting my first Open University job) I started to assimilate into British life and observed the class and wealth driven education system (State schools which included Grammar and Comprehensives, ‘Public’ schools independent of state control which South Africans called ‘Private’ schools). I began to understand comments my grandparents made about the sometimes superior quality of the State education we received in South Africa compared to what children at many State schools in the UK experienced during the same period, though it had improved a bit since then.

A generation earlier my grandparents (who lived for a time in East Africa: Uganda and later Kenya during the Mau Mau) had sent my mother and her sister to reputationally good UK ‘Public’ schools because they could afford to pay for such tuition (otherwise they would both have been entered for the 11-plus to seek places in a State Grammar school). At the time the teaching of history in English Public schools reinforced rather than challenged the status quo, a curriculum of “nostalgic analyses about our supposed global power and the beneficence of the former empire” (Claeys, 2013). Although my mother may have learned something about slavery in her history lessons, the curriculum was likely to have emphasized the emancipation narrative more than how Empire profited from slave labour and oppressed local cultures by creating “racial hierarchy to control and govern colonies around the world” (Goodfellow, 2019) after slavery was officially abolished.

Similiarly, my English husband’s experience of learning History (at a poor quality Independent secondary school) was of lists of dates, Royalty and Empire with little in the way of critical analysis or research skills taught and nothing about the causes of WW2, which was recent history for him. His knowledge of that war was drawn from the many films (dramas and documentaries) which were made in the 1950s and 1960s, often featuring ‘British heroes’ rather than international allies beating fascism and post war efforts between nations to build and maintain peace.

Years later, when our children were at State schools in England, I noticed distinct differences in the curriculum from my South African experience. Although they had school libraries, the teaching of research skills (for any subject) was much less apparent and I found myself teaching them some of what I had learned when they were doing homework because they were unsure how to seek reliable information (either in books or online) and make sense of what they found. At primary level, history seemed to be taught around period themes (The Victorians, the Saxons, the Romans, etc). There was little overview of the interconnectedness of world history, which the voyages of discovery and trade around the world revealed about how cultures interacted in different periods and the consequences of those encounters. I realised that South African children were geographically ideally placed to learn those stories, while there was much less of a narrative thread in the history curriculum experienced by British children like mine, as the less glamourous features of the British Empire were omitted or not emphasized in the curriculum. With a plethora of ruined castles and country houses to visit on school visits and family outings, the focus was on glorious, romanticised histories rather than on what could be learned from past mistakes. Neither of my children did History for their GCSEs and they’ve both said they’ve learned more history from holidays and outings, plus discussions with me than they remembered from school.

Three of my Open University undergraduate modules stand out as examples of critical engagement with cultural and historical differences:

  • A216 Art and its histories had a whole unit which explored and discussed other viewpoints in contrast to the often dominant Western view of art and culture. It also had an indepth unit on different views of gender in Art.
  • AA303 Understanding Comparative History: Britain and America from 1760 compared and contrasted the political, economic and industrial cultures of the two countries, revealing their strengths and weaknesses.
  • AA309 Culture, identity and power in the Roman empire examined a much earlier empire and the cultures it conquered, influenced and embraced.

Unfortunately, “ubiquitous imperialism, which continues to pervade our institutions and culture” (Matharu, 2020) means that “colonial thinking persists” (Goodfellow, 2019) in 21st century Britain, with animosity towards immigrants and people of other races whipped up by politicians and the media. This is largely due to ignorance of the nuances in British history and the proliferation of fake news stories with eye catching headlines which are deliberately divisive and encourage people to take sides without much thought or understanding. Unlike Germany which has confronted and continues to acknowledge its bloody and imperialistic role in WW2, Britain and other European nations have not yet faced and come to terms with the less palatable elements of their colonial histories; unfortunately “we cannot have a just and decent present as long as we refuse to face our pasts” (Neiman, 2020).

Redesigning history curricula…

The challenge for 21st century educators is to find ways to integrate the development of research and critical thinking skills into every subject they teach (primary, secondary and tertiary levels) and provide meaningful ways for child and adult learners to practice these skills so they can recognise propaganda and fake news more readily. The challenge for all of us who have such skills is to openly take on misleading headlines and soundbites in public (in the press, in films, documentaries and on social media) and when possible counter them calmly with relevant, verifiable nuance and detail in persuasive ways. We also need to review the History curriculum in British schools to ensure that every child is taught a broader narrative of world history along with concepts such as democracy, socialism, nationalism, facism, capitalism and communism before they choose their GCSEs.

By implementing a revised curriculum and engaging research informed public approaches, more people might begin to have some understanding of the richly mixed range of political, economic and cultural influences on British life and the role they can play individually and collectively to make a new future which is more equitable across culture and race than in the past.

Postscript

Both the schools I attended were some of the first South African schools to become mixed race once Apartheid was abolished (Pinehurst in 1990), with Pinelands High School introducing the annual Rainbow camps in 1999 to support cultural integration and tolerance.

References

Baines, G. (2008) Blame, Shame or Reaffirmation? White Conscripts Reassess the Meaning of the “Border War” in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Interculture, vol 5.3 (October 2008). Available at https://web.archive.org/web/20100609211126/http://dih.fsu.edu/interculture/volume5_3/Baines_Blame,_Shame_or_Reaffirmation.pdf (accessed 30 June 2020)

Claeys, A. (2013) Gove’s Proposed History Curriculum Forgets That We Live in 2013, Not the 1950s, 21 February 2013 [online], Huffpost. Available at https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/anna-claeys/michael-gove-history-curriculum_b_2723655.html (accessed 4 July 2020)

Gathara, P. (2020) Black Lives Matter protests should lead to rethink of attitudes to Africa, 23 June 2020 [online], The Financial Times. Available at https://www.ft.com/content/bc03814b-7f4e-4af2-af87-d8b85785c087 (accessed 4 July 2020)

Goodfellow, M. (2019) Put our colonial history on the curriculum – then we’ll understand who we really are, 5 December, 2019 [online], The Guardian. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/05/britain-colonial-history-curriculum-racism-migration (accessed 1 July 2020)

Karlssohn, J. (2004) Schooling Space: where South Africans learnt to position themselves within the
hierarchy of apartheid society, Pedagogy, Culture and Society, Volume 12, Number 3, 2004. Available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/14681360400200206 (accessed 29 June 2020)

King, Dean E. L., (1996) Chapter 7. A theatre of basic drama, A Good Place to Be: Dean E. L. King on thirty years at Cape Town Cathedral (p52). PreText, Cape Town, ISBN 0-620-20764-7

Le Grange, L. (2010) Chapter 5. South African Curriculum Studies: A Historical Perspective and Autobiographical Account, in W. F. Pinar (ed.), Curriculum Studies in South Africa. Available at https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9780230105508_6 (accessed 1 July 2020)

Matharu, H. (2020) Beyond Exceptional: The Etonian English Imperialism at the Heart of a Deadly COVID-19 Crisis, 5 June 2020 [online], Byline Times. Available at https://bylinetimes.com/2020/06/05/beyond-exceptional-the-etonian-english-imperialism-at-the-heart-of-a-deadly-covid-19-crisis/ (accessed 2 July 2020)

Motala, S. & Vally, S. (2002) ‘People’s education: from people’s power to Tirisano’ (p178), Apartheid Education, Popular Resistance and Alternative Education, in The History of Education under Apartheid 1948 – 1994: The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened. Peter Kallaway (ed.). Pearson Education, South Africa. ISBN-10: 1868911926

Neiman, S. (2020) Germany confronted its racist legacy. Britain and the US must do the same, 13 June 2020 [online], The Guardian. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/13/germany-confronted-racist-legacy-britain-us (accesed 2 July 2020)

Page, A. (2016) Libraries and homework in the internet age, AnnaCPage’s Blog, 16 April 2016 [online]. Available at https://annacpage.wordpress.com/2016/04/16/libraries-and-homework-in-the-internet-age/ (accessed 30 June 2020)

South African History Online (2019) Group Areas Act of 1950 [Online], South African History Online. Available at https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/group-areas-act-1950 (accessed 30 June 2020)

Bibliography

Bantu peoples https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bantu_peoples

Coloureds https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coloureds

Die Stem van Suid-Afrika https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Die_Stem_van_Suid-Afrika

District Six https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/District_Six

Khoisan https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khoisan

Pinehurst Primary School https://www.phps.org.za/history

Pinelands High School https://www.phs.org.za/

Pinelands, Cape Town https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinelands,_Cape_Town

Soweto uprising https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soweto_uprising

St George’s Cathedral https://sgcathedral.co.za/

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