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I had expected more. More meaning, more connection, more intimacy. The women on stage looked peaceful, serene, as though they had something to say but there were only words, weighty words perhaps, well pronounced words, words we could reflect on perhaps but words not used to connect or to communicate. Words that did not connect to become sentences in a piece that did not connect with me. Maybe that lack of connectedness was the point, as the piece (not sure I can call it a play) was about the medieval practice of anchoritism where women withdrew from the world and essentially entombed themselves in small spaces to better know God. Maybe the piece was structured to evoke a sense of fellow feeling with these anchorites who were attracted by the concept of being alone with God and found themselves merely alone, trapped, despairing, with the deadening reverberations of their own thoughts. If this was the intention then it worked and my not enjoying it was perhaps the point.
The exercise was given to Year 11 GCSE pupils, aged between 15 and 16, by a history teacher at the Hazeley Academy in Milton Keynes, and was derived from an AQA teacher’s guide on “Britain: migration, empires and people” study topic.
In the module, students are asked to examine the reasons why the British Empire pursued the transatlantic slave trade instead of piracy, with the stated aim to show how “plantations proved to be more profitable than piracy”.
As homework for the course, a teacher at Hazeley Academy asked students to list the “pros” and “cons” of slavery in a table, seen by HuffPost UK.
Sabrina Aries, the mother of a student who complained that the exercise was inappropriate, said she swiftly raised the issue with the headteacher, both via email and in person.
This article tells us little about the methodology and scope of the history lessons during which students were asked to list the pros of slavery (though I am not impressed by the photograph of an answer template). There is definitely a case for understanding the motivations and belief systems of abusers and abusive structures but to talk about the ‘pros’ of slavery is wholly insensitive and like talking about the pros of genocide, rape or child abuse.
History teaching at its best can offer invaluable insights into who we are as humans and into the way we treat each other. It can help us think about today, about how we go here and where we we need to go and so on. But because it is a powerful educational tool it has to be used carefully and sensitively with regard to content and methodology. I don’t think that history can be properly studied without also studying ethics. ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’ is a well known saying but I think the truth is that we are doomed to repeat history if we do not take ethical lessons from it. Britain benefited enormously from being a slave trader in the past, Britain benefits enormously from being an arms trader in the present. Unless we are able to use history in the context of ethical dialogue it is worse than useless, it is a tool of oppression. A story like this should prompt a discussion about the purposes of teaching history and maybe the purposes of education in general. It is not simply an issue about the ‘politically correct’ use of language.