Why teaching Welsh history on the new curriculum would give our students an international perspective
Cynog Dafis, former teacher and MP for Ceredigion
So we are to have a new national curriculum that will have no requirement to consider the story of the nation whose existence justifies its creation. This is outrageous. So what’s behind it? What’s with the Welsh Government and ‘Welsh History’, the history of the country it governs?
Is it that we need to emphasise skills rather than content? But what better way is there to hone skills, to give them relevance and substance, than to apply them to content? The degree of emphasis as between skills and content is a legitimate subject for debate, but to present them as opposites is to set up an utterly false dichotomy.
Is it about pedagogical freedom? Haven’t we had enough of prescription, constraining teachers’ creativity in a plethora of detailed requirements? Of course we have. But there is such a thing surely as a core of subject areas, of intellectual disciplines, including content, to which all students should be introduced. And what teacher has not been benefited from being given a frame within which to work and materials to support her/him? Prescription versus freedom? – another false dichotomy.
So there’s something deeper behind this and I think it’s about which identity and nationhood, issues about which Labour has always been dubious at best, outright hostile at worst. (It is true that the current, highly-respected minister is a Liberal Democrat, but she will I hope forgive me for assuming that her decisions are influenced by the Labour-dominate context in which she has to work). Deep down in the Labour mindset is the notion that Welsh History equals narrow, inward/backward)-looking, atavistic, discriminatory (in the worst sense), xenophobic even. We need to encourage internationalism not nationalism, even though it might be of the Welsh, not the Boris Johnson kind.
So here we have yet another, particularly platitudinous, false dichotomy.
Way back in 2013, I made an attempt at exploding this dichotomy in a response to a consultation on the then Cwricwlwm Cymreig, an adjunct to the England-and-Wales National (sic) Curriculum. I offered some random ideas about how themes in international history could be taught from a Welsh perspective and utilizing Welsh content. I was a bit miffed at the time not to have received an acknowledged but was later assured that this was normal non-practice. Be that as it may be I think the suggestions I made are still relevant.
One theme I entitled ‘Wales and the experience of Colonialism’. Topics I mentioned included European expansionism, the British Empire, emigration, slavery, the Welsh in the USA, Christian missionaries in India and the Patagonia experience. In all of these enterprises, and not just the last three, the Welsh were caught up, sometimes as enthusiastic proponents, sometimes as subversives and liberators.
Another theme was Modernisation, Industrialism, Radicalism and Democracy. Need I bother to remind you, gentle reader, of how the Welsh experienced this multi-faceted transformation, as exploiters and exploited, victims and visionaries, reactionaries and radicals – you name them. Link it with religious dissent and Darwinian secularism and what a rich seam of materials you have for trying to understand history, the human condition and the concept of Progress.
This has nothing to do with indoctrination in a particular version of Welsh history, whether of the Gwynfor Evans, Gwyn Alf Williams, John Davies or Kenneth Morgan kind. This it seems has been Kirsty Williams’s concern. What it would do is provide endless scope for intellectual stimulation and enlightenment.
For example, were the Welsh princes really trying to establish an independent Wales or just conducting a dynastic wrangle: debate. Was Wales ever a colony and is there any substance in the concept of internal colonialism? How did Welsh experiments in joint social provision influence the creation of the NHS? Were the Patagonian settlers beneficiaries of genocide or were they seeking liberation from English oppression? How to explain the support of Welsh patriots and chapel-goers, including Owen M Edwards for the First World War?
So it is hardly an exercise in introspection. It would not be about singing our own praises (though we could sometimes do with a dose of that too).
What it would do is establish that Wales is significant, fascinating, worthy of serious attention, capable of providing a rich perspective on some of the great shifts in the story of mankind. And because history is about sequence, cause and effect, chronology, it would for the first time give a sense of a national story that has meaning and that could inspire us for the future.
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