The Abuses of History: some steps towards avoiding distress in the History classroom

Adam Robertson suggests that history teachers are, by exposing their classes to violent or graphic media, potentially distressing their most vulnerable pupils, and that by carefully considering  such pupils’ subjectivity, and by returning agency to them, history teachers could begin to take steps to avoid repeating such mistakes.


If you were to force a child to sit down and watch a potentially distressing video, on pain of punishment should they leave the room, you would rightly be labelled an abuser. Yet this appears to happen in classrooms across the country in the name of teaching by ‘shock’, and of exposing students to the horrors of, for example, the Holocaust in the hope that they are less likely to willingly facilitate similar such atrocities in the future.

Many history teachers have reflected carefully on this issue, but as a profession we ought to begin to outline what might constitute some standards, particularly by placing the subjectivity of our students at the centre of our thinking, and some practical approaches, that we might apply in our classrooms in order to ensure we are not unwittingly damaging, and abusing, our pupils.

Teaching potentially shocking material, whether it be a single distressing media artefact or a whole topic which is itself distressing, is often justified, as Nicolas Kinloch points out, with a Santayanian belief in preventing catastrophic and inhumane events being repeated in the future, which might otherwise involve the hands of our own students.[1] However, the existence, to name but two, of the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s and the Rwandan genocide of 1994 suggests, that “the study of one example of mass-murder does not itself prevent another”.[2] Indeed, such events present the history teacher with a double bind: clearly not to teach such an appalling tragedy as the Holocaust (or slavery, or the degradations of the British Empire, et al) would be to paint a baselessly roseate view of our past and to absolve society in the present of any dues it might owe to those from whose subjugation it continues to profit, the prospect of which any historian would and should abhor; but in teaching these events, in exposing children to the brutality of which the human race has been, and continues to be, capable you potentially condition them to an acceptance of violence, increasing the likelihood that similar such violence is perpetrated again in the future.

Often, this bind is negotiated with calls to proper academic rigour, that as long as you treat the material with the due disciplinary respect all will be well.[3] But this runs the risk of ignoring the diverse subjectivities of the children we teach. Indeed, the academic rigour in this model rests entirely on the part of the teacher, and presumes an equal ability of all students to engage with the material in a disinterested manner, potentially leaving the most vulnerable members of any given class open to emotional distress and academic disadvantage.

To expand this point, it is worth dwelling on an article about the compulsory Tragedy paper in the Cambridge University undergraduate English Tripos published online in the CUSU Women’s Campaign ‘Gender Agenda’ zine.[4] In it the author, Daisy Hughes, suggests that the manner in which women have to read graphic descriptions of violence and murder perpetrated against women, and then ‘objectively’ carry out criticism of the plays as purely aesthetic objects is the cause of the fact that men are 40% more likely to get a first on the (compulsory) paper than women. It is a persuasive case, which also suggests that our most vulnerable students stand not only to be emotionally distressed by exposure to such material, but also further educationally disadvantaged as they fall behind their peers free from continuing oppression alongside whom they will continue to study and against whom they will be assessed.

In light of this, it is worth pointing out the fact that the history teaching profession is overwhelmingly white and middle class. It is very easy to be sanguine about teaching shocking content from the plush seats of the perpetrators, but such emotional detachment is simply not available to someone watching their own people, or members of the same gender being raped, assaulted or murdered. This must be on our minds when considering the fact that only three black trainee history teachers were offered places on teacher training courses last year and that we would expect most history students, many of whom will be black, to study the Atlantic Slave Trade and the Civil Rights Movement during KS3.

This is not to suggest that we ought simply not to teach these topics for fear of upsetting students who might emotionally identify with the victims of whatever historical atrocity is the object of study in a given lesson, for whatever personal or culturally prescribed reasons. Rather, it means that as teachers we need to be aware of the manner in which the legacy of the historical structures of power and dominance which we are studying and teaching continue to affect the ways in which all of our students experience contemporary society. We need to be aware of this, and we need to take this in to very serious consideration when deliberating whether or not to show students potentially shocking or distressing material however potentially interesting we might consider it to be. We need to give more thought to the privileges we enjoy in a culturally stratified and violent society.

This is simply to say that something that we don’t consider particularly shocking or distressing might, due to students’ race, gender or membership of any number of a myriad of cultural or social groups, be emotionally distressing to some of our students. But of course there is no telling what might cause any given student distress on any given day. Indeed, if we resolve that we ought to teach our students the history of events which were or might be perceived as shocking or distressing, we might adopt a general proviso not to show potentially emotive or distressing media, to retell these stories in as level-headed and detached a manner as is available to us.

This is obviously problematic, and it can be difficult to define what we think might be potentially distressing for every different student that we teach. This can only be navigated using a combination of knowledge gained of particular students from classroom experience, and knowledge gained from the inevitable and unfortunate occasions on which something presumed inoffensive and which has been used on several occasions with other groups causes some members of another class significant distress. But we can strive to avoid this happening wherever possible, and this would be a good thing to do.

Where something which is potentially distressing has been concluded to be of real educational value to students, for whatever reason, or simply in any case in which material might be thought capable of causing emotional distress, two potential approaches present themselves.

The first of these is to show the material in an optional and extra-curricular setting. One of the major problems in a teacher presuming to show students potentially distressing material in a classroom is the fact that the students are obliged to remain within the classroom, in which the teacher is responsible for them. To use this position of authority to force students to watch distressing material, however noble the intention, is explicitly abusive. But even the more enlightened approach, of inviting students to leave the classroom if they do not want to watch the offending material, is also problematic. Simply, students are not, in that situation, able to act freely. Even when given in good faith there is the tendency among students to trust the judgement of their teacher as a responsible adult with their best interests in mind and to therefore presume that they would not show content which could cause them distress, and moreover peer pressure necessarily impedes students’ ability to exercise their right to leave the classroom freely. Watching such material must be an explicitly and actively opt-in process extra to the core programme of study.

The second is to begin to employ trigger warnings, or content warnings, in the classroom. Trigger warnings were developed as a means of alerting sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that the article or video or whatever object was about to be viewed contained material which might ‘trigger’ them. This triggering is a process by which being exposed to accounts of similar events to those that initially caused the sufferer’s PTSD can provoke flashbacks, panic attacks and the compulsion to self-harm. A trigger warning is a note at the top of an article or before the start of a video explaining that the piece contains content which might trigger someone who had suffered from past experiences of the topic under discussion. Hopefully, in our daily practice we will not be teaching a significant number of students suffering from PTSD, but the principles can be extended to any potentially distressing material.

With students who do not suffer from a specific psychological disorder, it might be difficult for them to know whether a given subject might bring about a negative emotional response, especially if they have never been exposed to it before. But this process, of using trigger warnings on material which was not compulsory to experience would at least begin to return a degree of agency to students in regard to deciding what is and is not distressing to them. Indeed, it would be worth applying them in regular lessons more generally if they can play any role in sheltering students from material which might cause them distress but which has not been deemed distressing by the teacher.

Perhaps the two most glaringly obvious solutions to this situation are two which are the least feasible given the restraints of time and money imposed on the education system. This would be to increase the provision of extra-curricular facilities to children, in order to enable the entirely voluntary opt-in approach to such material available to all throughout the academic year, and to extend the compulsory provision of an historical education beyond the age of fourteen, so that history teachers have the chance to expose their students to more emotionally challenging material when those students are older and mature enough to seek them out and to process them.  

[1] Nicholas Kinloch, ‘Parallel Catastrophes? Uniqueness, redemption and the Shoah’ Teaching History 104, p. p. 9.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Kate Hammond, ‘From Horror to History: teaching pupils to reflect on significance’ Teaching History 104, p. 15.


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