History matters, but what history shall we teach?

The 1980s nationalist history syllabus lasted for a decade. It was replaced in 2001 by the patriotic syllabus. But after 30 years has Zimbabwe come full circle back to teaching only dry, dull history about Europe? Asks TERESA BARNES.

School children in Zimbabwe
School children in Zimbabwe

I’ve been a fan of Zimbabwean high school history since 1982, when I went to Zimbabwe to be a volunteer teacher at Danhiko High School in Harare. My students were disabled ex-combatants who had returned to the country and were keen to finish the educations that they had interrupted to fight in the liberation struggle. They were focused, hard-working and wonderful students.

They did their reading and homework assignments with energy and purpose. Working with them was one of the best experiences of my life. When I started teaching, I had no idea about the “sanctity of the syllabus”. I taught a kind of world history in my first classes – about Africa, Asia and Latin America – topics that were not on the syllabus. When the students asked why we were spending time on these topics I said, “Because they are interesting!”

Time and experience reined me in and, to my students’ relief, I eventually learned how to teach to the syllabus. Back then it was the “Rhodesian syllabus” – only European history and the history of European settlement in Africa. It wasn’t until the end of 1991 that the Curriculum Development Unit of the Ministry of Education published the long-awaited new syllabus.

Everyone called it “the nationalist syllabus.” It presented a narrative of Zimbabwe’s history and development by relying heavily on comparative international social and economic history. By then I had become involved in a textbook-writing team. We were concerned to pack the book with sources – pictures, quotations, and what we called back then, “popular voice.”

We were passionate about writing a new people’s history for a new nation. The other teams for other publishers were also trying to do something new and in better ways. It was an exciting time to be a high school history textbook writer.

The nationalist syllabus was very long and focused on producing academic historians who could write good essays. Our books were interesting but dense and not sufficiently focused on “education for toleration.” But they supported the skills of answering questions about the reliability of sources and about interpretations of historical events.

This approach was the only antidote to the rote learning approach of the “Rhodesian syllabus”. If students could be empowered and encouraged to read historical sources and clearly present their own reasoned judgments on the reliability of different information and perspectives, it would be the basis of a new and liberated historiography for a new nation.

The nationalist syllabus lasted for a decade. It was replaced in 2001, at a time of intense social turmoil in Zimbabwe, by what many have called the “patriotic” syllabus. It did away with the comparative economic international approach, and focused mainly on Zimbabwe, and European political history.

It also did away with the emphasis on source-based questions. Exam questions were no longer in essay format. They were in a short-answer format where students were marked on recall, description and analysis. Recall and description could receive a total of 17 out of 25 marks per question. Critical thinking and interpretation were much less highly valued in this syllabus.

“Patriotic history” is now ceaselessly trumpeted in official Zimbabwean media and other circles. It is narrow and sectarian and claims that the history of Zimbabwe is the story of one political party and one man, and that in history there are only good patriots or evil sell-outs. Many people have assumed that this approach has swept unopposed through Zimbabwean history teaching.

I’ve been conducting research with high school teachers in Zimbabwe for the last seven years. The story I have heard is much more complicated than that. Teachers say they are proud to teach history to Zimbabwe schoolchildren. They think it is very important. They are well-trained in academic history at A-Level, teacher training colleges and the University of Zimbabwe.

They battle with huge classes, few resources and the temptations of leaving the country. They are well-aware of the high stakes of their work and know that they are on the front lines of the nation’s memory.

In 2010, teachers reported that they were choosing not to teach contemporary Zimbabwean history at all, since it is so close to contemporary politics. Human rights; structural adjustment; land resettlement; national political unity; even the Second Chimurenga – these were all dangerous topics for the classroom. Instead they were preparing students for the O-Level exams as best they could on much less contentious topics like the Stone Age kingdoms, Bismarck, and World War I.

The irony is that after 30 years, Zimbabwe may have come full circle to teaching only dry, dull history about Europe.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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