The importance of history

Debbie Jacob -
Debbie Jacob -


TAKE ONE picture of the British monarch’s crown, add some choice selections from a slew of internet stories on the Queen’s death and you get a myriad of teaching possibilities on everything from evaluating resources to understanding how history shapes our lives and culture. Students – especially those in CAPE Caribbean Studies – need to have discussions about current events like the Queen’s death to understand the complicated world we live in.

As English teachers and librarians, we want students to learn how to find credible resources to evaluate stories on the internet and in social media. Which stories are most factual? How can readers tell facts from opinion? Why is that important?

So many questions surface from the coverage of the Queen’s funeral. Why did journalists write about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and their rift with the royal family in that funeral coverage, and why were those stories often based on anonymous sources? How much should we trust anonymous sources in any journalism we read?

A timeline of Elizabeth II’s life covers nearly a century of history, which becomes a perfect platform for examining how past events like slavery and colonialism shaped the present and possibly impact on the future. We need to ask what does the monarchy and its role in slavery and colonialism symbolise to different people and cultures? What’s the role of the Commonwealth?

It’s important to discuss what history is and how we should view it. Many people think history is factual, but it’s not. There are facts – dates and events – but people make history and their complex personalities shape events that are interpreted differently by the recipients of their actions.

History is a combination of the good, the bad and the ugly, and separating those evaluations is as impossible as trying to separate tangled silk threads; so the question is what do we lose when we try to paint history as all good or bad? How does a single interpretation of historical events affect prejudice and racism?

Equally important are discussions about class. In a world where we have been taught to value equality, why do we have institutions like monarchies that are based on hereditary and class structure? Why are people still fascinated by kings and queens?

This is an opportunity to look at how abstract concepts like symbolism, tradition and rituals become concrete for students who approach writing from a visual sense. What about a discussion of the jewels in the monarch’s crown – especially the massive diamond that South Africans reportedly want back?

The monarchy plays a symbolic role in Great Britain. Do we need leaders to play symbolic roles as much as we need them to play real roles on the political stage and in our lives?

Much was made of Queen Elizabeth’s symbolic role as a child during World War II.

Could you consider Elizabeth’s war-time pep speeches activism? What young activists do students know about or relate to today? How many students will know of the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg or the Pakistani woman’s rights activist Malala Yousafzai who advocated for educating women after she survived an attack by the Taliban, which doesn’t believe in educating women?

Veering a little off course with discussions of the Sussexes, Harry and Meghan, we discover another gold mine of information as a launching point to discuss race, prejudice, a sense of duty, individualism, happiness and consequences. How do you evaluate the Sussexes' choice to relinquish their roles as working royals? Which is more important, our sense of duty to our families and society or our personal happiness? When we make personal decisions, do we consider the consequences? Should Harry and Meghan face any consequences for their decision to bow out of royal duties and strike out on their own? Can we ever really do whatever we want in life and not face pushback or consequences?

Last, but certainly not least, are important conversations about the importance of tradition and rituals in our lives? What do they mean? Why are they important? What happens if your traditions have a negative impact on others? How do we handle those conversations about controversial traditions? Can we rectify painful history?

These important questions rooted in history and reported in popular culture through the internet and social media form a foundation for empathising with those who are different from us. Students must realise we can’t understand the world we live in without understanding how history has shaped us.


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