On CCN’s Morning Edition programme some time ago, Mr Khafra Kambon, long-serving chairman of the Emancipation Support Committee, complained that the study of history, including Caribbean history, was being de-emphasised in the nation’s schools. Mr Kambon–who was recently recognised as one of 50 Distinguished Alumni of UWI, St Augustine, graduating over the last 50 years—said that as a result, fewer students at the University were opting to take history courses.
When the presenter suggested that we shouldn’t be “enslaved by our history”, he agreed, but said that it was when “someone else tells you your history”, when you don’t know your own history, that you could be “enslaved” by the past. “We need to know the truth”, he concluded.
At UWI, members of the Department of History are continually surprised at how little our new students know about the nation’s history. And remember, these are students who all have passes in history at C-SEC, and the majority also at CAPE. Most of our new students have the vaguest of notions about the evolution of Trinidad and Tobago, and have never heard of very important figures and episodes in our national story.
To make matters worse, only a minority of secondary school children take C-SEC history; the social studies syllabus, in which little bits of history, geography, political science and sociology are combined, is the more popular option in most schools.
The C-SEC history syllabus is a good one, but it takes in the whole Caribbean, and is generally dominated by material on Jamaica, the biggest and the most thoroughly researched of the English-speaking islands, and on Cuba and Haiti. There really isn’t much specifically on Trinidad and Tobago in the syllabus. The CAPE syllabus is even broader, taking in the whole “Atlantic World”.
As a result, even students who have passed history at C-SEC and CAPE may have absorbed relatively little about the nation’s past. Some secondary schools do a bit of local history in Forms 1 to 3, but this is not the case across the board. The result is that the national history seems to fall between the cracks, even for those relatively few students who opt for history at C-SEC and CAPE.
When Mr Kambon spoke about someone else telling us our history, he was thinking perhaps of an earlier time, when Caribbean history—if it was studied at all—was written from the point of view of outsiders, as a minor sideshow to British or European history. As he noted, those days are long over. Over the last 50 years or so, a huge amount of research has been done on our region’s history, which takes it for granted that the people who lived, worked and died there should be the centre of the story, not the explorers, pirates, conquistadors, governors, enslavers, naval heroes, who came, wrought havoc, and left.
And to be fair, the C-SEC and CAPE history syllabi—designed and examined by historians mostly from the regional University—do reflect this body of scholarship and this “history from the inside” perspective. Textbooks have dramatically improved over the 30-plus years of the CXC, and new ones are appearing all the time.
It’s the national history which, it seems, is not being adequately taught in our schools. Yet virtually every nation on the globe does insist on its children being exposed to its history, in the schools, and often through other means also.
It’s not that we should be teaching children that their nation is better than anyone else’s, or spinning all kinds of myths about the glorious past or heroic Fathers or Mothers of the Nation. As Mr Kambon said, we need to know the truth about our past.
“Truth” in history is notoriously tricky, and most historians think that we can never know the absolute, final, true-for-all-time facts about the past. Or achieve history that is one hundred percent objective or free of bias—since the documents on which we base our history are always biased, and we ourselves, the researchers and writers, are human beings with our own particular baggage in our heads.
But historians certainly must try to produce history that is as accurate, objective and “true” as possible, meaning that everything we write must be solidly based on evidence (sources). And it is part of our duty to expose myths, legends and popular misconceptions about the past. Even if they are cherished myths about the nation and its traditions, or about National Heroes. Even—or especially—if they are misconceptions which may help to promote divisions, whether these divisions are ethnic, regional, gender or class-based.
I agree with Mr Kambon. We need history to be given more prominence as a subject in its own right in the nation’s primary and secondary schools. We need more national history to be taught, in addition to regional (Caribbean and Atlantic) and world history. We need for citizens of all ages to be exposed to the facts of the nation’s past, not only young persons in schools and universities, but everyone through all the media available to us.
The preceding article was also published in Trinidad and Tobago’s daily newspaper, The Daily Express.