However, I could not quite leave the idea alone. Since Ben published the post in October, I have had a range of discussions with colleagues where we considered whether we actually had our own red lines in terms of history teaching. It turns out that we do. The main difference I think is that they are mostly linked not so much to methods, but to whether or not core educational values, and nature of history as a discipline are being appropriately, and indeed rigorously, served (I went into this to some extent in my post HERE) . In the end we established five or six big problems we had come across in history lessons (not including broader issues of assessment). Of those we agreed pretty much unanimously on two, and partially on a third. I am to outline these in three separate blogs:
- The ahistorical question: who killed John F Kennedy? (below)
- Imagination based tasks: the "letter from Auschwitz"
- Empathy type roleplays: the “slave auction”
Now I am very keen not to make this too negative, so before I begin I’d like to highlight two key points:
- Everything I am discussing here comes from our direct experiences and is, anecdotally at least, fairly widespread, so I am not trying to single out people or departments.
- I appreciate that some of these lessons/activities are chosen with the very best intentions. I therefore hope to offer some potential alternatives to meet similar needs in a (hopefully) more historical way.
Who killed JFK?
This is probably the most controversial inclusion. I can see many reasons why people use this topic, and it is fairly popular I think as an end of year unit for Year 9, or an options-time sweetener for earlier in the year. The main justifications I see are normally linked to getting students to use historical evidence to make a case. Beyond this, it is to do with the edgy aspect of seeing a murder on film, which creates a level of morbid excitement and interest. JFK is a topic I have taught in the past, and it was generally met with rapture by about half the students, keen to see "Kennedy's head explode when he gets done" (as one student put it). This of course is my first worry as part of the humanising experience of studying history is trying to understand and respect others who lived before us. The focus on aspects of gore and horror often get in the way. This is equally true when we get morbidly fascinated with the process of beheading Mary Queen of Scots, or the murder victims of Jack the Ripper in my view. Although we cannot avoid the fact people in the past were killed, murdered, assassinated, or otherwise met with grisly ends, we do not have to revel in it. Nor do we need to encourage pupils aged just 13 or 14 to find pleasure in the passage of fragments of bone and brain matter through forensically slowed down film.
Beyond the questionable focus, I suppose my other main problem here is that this is not a question which historians are really asking. One of the core tenets of a good history education in my view is that it addresses at least some of those things which are the object of actual historical study. I can’t think of many serious historical studies which look at the murder exclusively, rather than in the broader context of the period (nor to be honest can I think of many historians who try to explain why William won the Battle of Hastings, but that’s another story). There is also the problem that the evidence itself is dealt with ahistorically. A legal question means that students end up dealing with evidence from a legal standpoint (though without the necessary training in the fundamentally different relationship the law has with evidence). If we want to develop students' evidential reasoning in history, then we need to do this through a genuine historical question. This also allows us to focus much more explicitly on how historians engage with evidence to make claims, rather than leaving students to meander to their own conclusions, no matter how tenuous or ungrounded.
[EDIT: Paula Lobo has just reminded me that the issue of ahistorical questions is covered nicely in Michael Riley's article in Teaching History 99, where he draws on a training exercise used by Christine Counsell. You can find the full piece HERE]
In addition to the above problems, JFK units I have been involved with have often lasted for many weeks with only the most cursory background knowledge being delivered. I cannot help but think that such time could be better spend teaching wider aspects of the 20th century.
That said, in many ways JFK could be a really excellent topic, if dealt with in its proper context, and with a question addressed more fully by historians rather than conspiracy theorists. Asking “Why is the murder of JFK so significant?” moves away from evidence by does place the life and work of JFK in a much broader context. Or to keep an evidential focus: “Why is it so hard to work out what actually happened on 22 November 1963?” would at least allow students to engage with the piecemeal nature of sources and their uses as evidence. Similarly “Why might people have wanted JFK dead?” could keep the focus on the assassination but allow a much wider focus on the geopolitical landscape, as well as JFK’s domestic agenda should one want to do so. Finally, a question similar to “Why did so many people in the late 20th century think that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t kill JFK?” would make for a fascinating study of developments in society and politics from the 1960s through to 1990s.
In my next blog I will be dealing with the letter from Auschwitz type lesson. In the meantime, I would be fascinated to know your thoughts on the theme of JFK. We also discussed a number of other similar "mystery" type units including "Did NASA really land on the moon?" and "Why did the Titanic sink?"