CHAPTER 23 – Handing on the Torch of Civilisation I: The History Teacher
History, my graduate subject, my first love from those many years ago in Swanns Rd, Christchurch, where I began drinking the depths of Western culture in Christopher Dawson’s grand view of the thrust of History encompassing art, literature, religion, philosophy and politics. My conversion to Catholicism in the 1960s came with generous chunks of the growth of music, of painting, of metaphysics, of those huge debates about 12th century Scholasticism, the Protestant Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution and the Rise of Western Europe. Back then my reading of Chesterton and Belloc and Knox gave me an historical critical view of the modern world.
Admittedly, history was a vehicle for the political propaganda of Western Liberalism – the fight for political freedom – ever since the French Revolution, but it also helped students understand the causes of the great Western adventure stretching back over time. The university history curriculum still expected students to study a compulsory narrative of European history from the Dark Ages to the 20th Century. Even though much of the substance of European history was about political and constitutional developments from the ancient to modern worlds, there were fascinating glimpses of literary, philosophical, religious and artistic developments which were the main root causes of political developments. And it was these areas which I wished to explore in my history classes, as a side menu to the standard political and constitutional topics.
That fervour to hand on the torch, the flame of seeing the big picture, had grown over the years, and now I was able to hand on this torch to my students.
But, history in New Zealand schools was an unpopular subject when compared with geography and the sciences. It was difficult to not only gain a position as a teacher of history but far less to gain a higher-paid position of responsibility – to gain the treasured Head of Department status with monetary reward. I was indeed fortunate that I became HoD of History and Social Studies in the mid-1980s, after being an assistant English teacher.
The decline of history as a subject accelerated in the 1970s with the introduction of the New Social Studies syllabus. The new methodology of sociology became the foundation for all the social sciences. This was the beginning of that post-modern Marxist-based relativism which was soon to invade all areas of the curriculum: not just the humanities but and even the sciences. Facts were unimportant. According to Bloom’s infamous Taxonomy, self-discovery and evaluation ranked above learning content. Historical topics in junior classes were chosen for their economic, and sociological themes rather than topics which would explore the basis of our own Western culture in a continuous narrative. So, historical topics of Social Studies in junior school was complete with sociological studies of superstition in the Black Plague and poverty in Victorian England, and perhaps a little of colonial New Zealand. No continuous narrative, no wonder, all meaningless and extremely boring, especially since many schools gave Social Studies as a fill-in subject to any teacher regardless of qualifications. The geographical content was far more factually detailed. Average students could easily grasp the concepts.
However, the positive sides of teaching history were that classes were smaller and were filled with the more literate student.
Look at this hot-potch of topics for the history student: no narrative flow, no vision, a lost faith in the West already by the 1970s. The only reason is to further the aims of the social historiography.
Year 11 School Certificate history topics about social and cultural conflict: Israel and Palestine, South Aftrica and Apartheid, Race Relations in New Zealand and the USA. Year 12 University Entrance topics examined European political history of Nationalism, Socialism and Liberalism. Year 13 Scholarship topics: English constitutional and religious conflict 1559 to 1715 and Early Contact Relations in New Zealand.
By the 1990s, the last traditional narratives in Year 12 were made optional, and competed with internally assessed subjects so very popular with the students and Baby Boomer teachers: the 1960s Revolution, Vietnam War, etc. And 17th century English history was able to be internally assessed which meant that easier topics could be chosen for the exam. Furthermore, throughout the 1980s, the historical literary essay, the traditional way for students to present their ideas, was gradually reduced to short essays, or paragraphs, and increasing weight given to multimedia presentations, graphic displays and multi-choice answers. Newer socio-economic themes topics were introduced: all with a solid Marxist interpretation, replacing the old Liberal political themes.
To make matters even worse, all textbooks written with a text-based narrative were replaced with graphics illustrated with text: cartoons, newspaper clips, graphs, etc. The text itself in these new books was written with as little personal style as possible. Dry, superficial, impersonal, unemotive, purely factual – the bias, of course, hidden in the selection of material. The idea that history was a humanity, a person’s understanding of events, an literary presentation of the art of the essay art form dating back to Ancient Greece had ended. The Ancients had set out the rules for the presentation of ideas in the essay: introduction of idea, development of arguments, proofs, answering of objections, conclusion, QED – a solid way for students to learn to reason and to express themselves in their own way guided by the ancients, and by the style of the quite personal and biased historical writing of the past.
But two areas of the New Zealand curriculum remained free of Marxism, modernism and multiculturalism: Classical Studies and the History of Art. And here in these historical-cultural “bolt-holes” I was to hide, teaching with much greater freedom, enjoyment and success.