Schools Outreach and Historical Accessibility
Everywhere we turn, we are told that the Arts are in crisis. This is not merely a crisis in the sense of a critical dearth of funding, but, more damningly, in a moral sense. Historians are often levelled with the charge of loitering in an archival ivory tower and contributing little to the contemporary problems that burden the likes of economists and politicians. In the present climate, history cannot afford to be seen as elitist, antiquarian, and irrelevant. Given that the past pervades and informs the life of each and every person, it is not simply enough to engage Arts students in the lecture theatre once their enrolment is cut and dried. We need to do more than that: we need to engage with young people, not as demagogues, but as collaborators. Our most crucial audience in the effort to educate, enlighten and make a tangible public impact is high school students.
The challenge of public engagement has been one of the key drivers between the University of Auckland History Society’s Schools Outreach Program. Yet, it has not been the only one. A corollary to the campaign of making history relevant is to make it accessible to all. Since its inception in 2016, our Outreach program has travelled to over fifty schools around Auckland, and even as far afield as Napier, in order to demystify the experience of studying history at university.
We have visited each school with a contextual approach in mind. Whether a lower decile school or a private institution, each is visited by two History Society volunteers who trace their own journey of studying history and answer student questions about what university is really like. For many students, attending university is by no means a given: it can often seem like a hostile, unfamiliar, and sometimes fantastical place that lies beyond reach. By relating their own experiences, our volunteers describe not only the support systems that helped them to study their passion, but also the challenges that they have overcome in order to get to where they are now. We aim to demonstrate to students that everyone has a place in history, both physically and metaphorically; both within the university and their own community. It is crucial to know your audience, and to represent history in a way that speaks to students’ lived experiences and conceptions of the past.
For my part, I enjoy telling students about my own journey into studying history. Coming from a British immigrant family, I grew up internalising nostalgic anecdotes about people, places and events that I had never encountered myself but was nevertheless fascinated by. In particular, my maternal grandparents often recalled (and continue recalling to this day) memories of wartime Manchester in the 1940s: the bleak images of devastation, privation and fear were also interspersed with fond recollections of a mother’s perseverance, sweets rations and communal solidarity. What fascinated me over the years was the ways in which the details of the war stayed constant, yet the narrative continued to evolve. I longed to understand how my grandparents conceptualised their own experiences, and how they measured them against the facts, stories, and images that they collected and remained fixated by as the years passed. Two factors, therefore, led me to study history: I was deeply impacted by the shadow of the Second World War that lay across my own family, and I longed to understand how people across time have made sense of the unimaginable.
As historians, we have a duty to actively educate others. We cannot understand how we got to where we are or the means by which others have pursued alternatives in times of crisis unless we look back to the past. The future lies in the hands of the next generation of budding historians, yet they can only yield solutions if we can reinforce that there is value in historical thinking. Times of crisis are also times of stimulus, and the University of Auckland Schools Outreach Program seeks to be an integral part of this critical response.
Emma Wordsworth is the President of the University of Auckland History Society and recently finished her Bachelor of Arts majoring in History and Politics. She is currently writing her Honours dissertation on the 1907 International Socialist Women’s Congress in Stuttgart. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.
In order to sustain our Schools Outreach programme, we need you! If you are interested, please do let us know. We will be hosting an information session on Thursday 28th March where we will show you a mock presentation and answer any of your questions. If you are interested please email firstname.lastname@example.org and she can give you more details.