Reviving history teaching

Yesterday marked the beginning of Indigenous Heritage Month. We will, of course, be treated to all the usual exhibitions and the like, but one cannot help but wish that the population as a whole, and not just the First Peoples, were exposed to the early history of this land. We have always had the arguable disadvantage of a history which evolves in segments, equating to the arrival time of each of the ethnic groups which came here, so that members of each group tend to be concerned mostly with the history of their own people, and are satisfied with simplified generalizations in relation to everyone else.

This statement has to be qualified with the acknowledgement that history in general in this country appears to have gone into hibernation. One suspects, for example, that it is not a compulsory subject for the older age groups in secondary schools, while in the primary schools and possibly the lower years of some secondary schools, it has been sandwiched among the variegated topics comprising the Social Studies syllabus. At the university level it is no longer perceived by students as being a worthwhile subject for study, so it no longer attracts the numbers which used to fill the classrooms.

The problem is that qualifications in certain subject areas are often seen as an orientation towards if not preliminary training for a particular career, and in the case of history, that is usually teaching. While it is certainly true that most science subjects lay the groundwork for very specific forms of employment, it was always considered in the past that the field of arts and humanities traditionally could supply the all-round educational requirements for a range of administrative and trainee posts. Nowadays, we have so compartmentalized knowledge, that we no longer seem to accept this.

But that aside, every society should be familiar with its history at some level – and not just the more recent history with which we have become obsessed and where the provenance of our current political woes is located. Every society should have a sense of its identity, more especially in our case, where a more complex identity is involved than the one to which most of our Caribbean counterparts lay claim.

A nation lacking a sense of history will behave as though it has been cast adrift in an ocean, with no anchor, and no compass or other navigational aids. In an extreme situation (which admittedly does not fully equate to us) there is no building on tradition or correcting the aberrations of the past; everything will be done anew. The templates for quite simple things (as opposed to highly technical ones) will come from outside because there will be little transmission of local knowledge to the next generation; in short, there will be no heritage, or if there is, only of a limited kind.

Most of our sister Caricom territories have done far more work on their history than we have; for the most part, it is a more straightforward story than ours, and in any case, with certain exceptions like Trinidad & Tobago and Suriname, they are also more homogeneous communities.  But what we have which they do not (Suriname excepted), is a remarkable depth of history. It is in fact, pre-history.

It used to be thought that archaeological work in the humid tropics was unrewarding, because the climate and natural conditions destroyed everything. However, with new techniques and hard work, a lot has been found to be recoverable, and all kinds of new information has been acquired. Now there are a number of archaeologists who go into the field, and there are programmes to interest youngsters in this area.

It is this dimension of our communal past which is provided by the Indigenous people, who according to the late archaeologist Denis Williams first came here at least seven thousand years ago. The first peoples appear to have settled in the North West, and he eventually came very cautiously to identify them as possible ancestors of our present-day Warraus. It was Venezuelan members of this same nation who, starving and desperate, took refuge here a few weeks ago.

Of course generally speaking there are two levels of making information about the past available. In the first instance, research has to be undertaken, which is then usually made available to academics or those working in the field through the agency of articles in academic journals or published monographs. Thereafter, the relevant data has to be popularized – and there are many avenues for this nowadays – and most important, made available for schools. If it is not taught in schools, it is unlikely to seep into the public consciousness. 

Since we are constantly discovering new things about our history, particularly the early period, our curriculum specialists would need to be alert, in order to incorporate newly discovered data in their syllabi. Need it be said, that unless a decision was taken at the highest level, and resources were provided for curriculum development, that is simply not going to happen. 

Where our Indigenous people are concerned, it is not just archaeological discoveries and the story of how the very first inhabitants existed here which need to be disseminated, it is also what happened in the Contact period, that is to say, the period after Columbus and his three caravels landed in the Bahamas (or Turks & Caicos) in 1492. It was Prof Mary Noel Menezes who was the first to demonstrate that some of the ethno-historical record could be accessed from colonial records, and her published work on the Indigenous people here covering a seventy year period in the nineteenth century stands as testimony to that. 

At this stage one could only hope that our curriculum specialists would see the wisdom of reviving the teaching of history in schools – presumably when some normality returns to the teaching profession, and teaching is seen as an occupation with some cachet – and cease burying it in the amorphous welter of facts which go to make up social studies. They could start, for example, with the Grade Six Assessment Social Studies paper which should have been abandoned a long time ago.

Let the children learn about how the ancestors of the Warraus lived in the North West, or how the first inhabitants of the Rupununi survived, or about the raised fields of the Arawaks, or how the Arawaks carried loads of cassava and other provisions to the hungry Spaniards in the pearl islands of Margarita, Cubagua and Coche to save them from starvation in the 16th century, or how they produced annatto for the Dutch, among many other things. And then there are all the other peoples too; could we not have local information instead of simplified matter extracted from the experience of Jamaica and Barbados, in the case of the slavery period? And after that comes the period of indentureship, with its different stories.

The President’s sentiment is right. Although he expressed it differently, history is in need of a boost here.

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