Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Teaching Cornish history ...

My article in today’s Cornish Guardian focuses on the importance of teaching Cornish history in local schools. It is as follows:

The attempt by the Education Secretary to introduce a new national curriculum for the teaching of history in schools has led to a number of unedifying rows in recent months.

Michael Gove had claimed he wanted teaching to “celebrate the distinguished role” of the UK in the “history of the world.”

Some historians backed his proposals, but others complained that his preferred history syllabus was not “balanced.” One academic condemned it as “1066 and all that – but without the jokes,” while a magazine thought it resembled a pub quiz.

Mr Gove had also spoken about focussing on “British heroes and heroines.” Margaret Thatcher was named among the initial list of key historic figures to be studied and, unsurprisingly, the Conservative Minister was accused of “political bias,” while he branded his critics as “Marxists” and “lefties.”

The Government has announced that, following the controversy, the proposed syllabus has been heavily revised, with an enhanced emphasis on world history, though “there will still be a strong narrative of British history” at the core of curriculum.

In reality, there can never be a definitive answer as to which aspects of history should be taught in schools, though I have noticed that Cornwall doesn’t get a mention in Gove’s documents.

The national curriculum does however state that “pupils should be taught about … significant historical events, people and places in their own locality,” but the history of Cornwall is much more that “local” history.

There are many educational professionals and teachers, who are already working hard to ensure that local children are taught about Cornwall. It is right that we applaud their work, and do all we can to ensure that their efforts are built upon.

I believe that local children – and adults for that matter – do benefit from understanding more about the land in which they live, and what made it the place it is today.

There is so much to learn about and understand and treasure. This could include Cornwall’s Celtic origins, the Cornish language, mining, the mass emigration of Cornish men and women; the achievements of its people – engineers and inventors such as Richard Trevithick and Henry Trengrouse, scientists like Humphry Davy and John Couch Adams, social reformers and radicals such as Emily Hobhouse and William Lovett; and the struggles of the ordinary people of Cornwall who lived though the social and economic upheavals of times past.

The above image is of workers from Trewhela Clay Works in St Enoder Parish, dating to the early 1930s - it contains quite a few Coles!


Unknown said...

I was one of the hundreds of signatories of the open letter by historians to Michael Gove's back of a beer mat proposal for a new 'national' curriculum. My simple comment was that what he was proposing was just bad history.

In Cornwall part of the problem, in my opinion, is that there isn't enough revisionism in Cornish history writing (making its narratives very old fashioned and ignoring large sections of the population) and so teaching it meaningfully is difficult.

To rebalance the gross gender bias in Cornish history I have been running a project called History 51 along with a network of others to start bringing Cornish women's stories to a much wider audience so the names of the many, many women that have shaped Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly in politics, science, culture, art, society and economics get better known.

Hardly any of these get a look-in in the grand narratives of Cornish history which is so narrowly focused on, as your own examples show, male miners, scientists, inventors etc. You criticise the history of British heroes and heroines in Gove's proposal (as I do) but in a Cornish perspective homing in on Davy, Trevithick and miners does the same. There is so much more as you know, from landscape and settlement patterns, agriculture, urban development, fishing, port development from the Middle Ages, textile industries, Iron Age housing and differing funerary practices... I could go on. All of this can be meaningfully brought to children's classrooms and home education to teach them more about their locality and its distinctiveness.

Dick Cole said...

Hi Elizabeth

I am fully aware of History 51 and I agree with your comments. I note you say that you "could go on" and so could I. But I was constrained by a strict word limit for the local paper and, to be frank, I was struggling to get as much as I wanted into the final paragraphs.

As a professional archaeologist, I know all about the wider "grand narratives."

But this was not meant to be an academic treatise - more an attempt to flag up the issue of the need to promote more teaching of Cornish history in local schools, via a popular publication.

For that reason, I deliberately name-checked some of the more "well-known" historical figures associated with Cornwall, such as Trevithick and Davy, which most people would recognise; while at the same time mentioning individuals that less people would have been aware of, such as Hobhouse and Lovett, hopefully making these people question their limited knowledge about the subject.

The original list of individuals - and aspects of Cornish history / archaeology - was much longer but had to be edited down.

The key line for me - which I only just squeezed in - was about the need to focus on the "struggles of the ordinary people of Cornwall who lived though the social and economic upheavals of times past."

Hope that makes sense. We are in agreement!