Why are we teaching history anyway?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

T.S Eliot (1947:142) Opening stanza from Choruses from the Rock.

Debates about what history to teach and how to teach it have been recently reinvigorated. Firstly by proposals for a new history curriculum and then through an attack by the secretary of state for education on what he perceives as infantilized history pedagogies. Some debates have addressed common polarizations such as facts or knowledge v process or skills curricula and  traditional or didactic v progressive or child centered pedagogies, and others have focused on particular and specific details of content and/or process. The What? and How? of teaching history continue to be well excercised, but very little attention has been paid to the Why?, or to articulating the defining aspects of history as a subject or discipline. What we teach in history, and how, can only be determined with reference to why we teach history at all. This blog post is an attempt to begin a deeper more fundamental debate in order that the discussions about the What? and the How? have some clearer meaning beyond the relative opinions that they represent.

A brief history of history in the curriculum. 

History was introduced into the school curricula during the 18th century and was taught with the purpose of creating moral and responsible human beings and of servicing national-political and civic aims. This purpose, with an emphasis upon moulding character and behaviour through studying the lives of the great and the good, continued throughout the nineteenth century. Arguing for an increased emphasis upon history in the curriculum in 1863, S.S.Laurie wrote:

‘History is an abuse of time if not used to bring to the schoolboy knowledge of wonderful deeds done in the discharge of patriotism and duty. History could bring us in bold relief the grand characters who through their heroic struggles for right and freedom had gained the privileges we now enjoy and by their great discoveries had made it possible for England to grow into a mighty empire.’ (cited by Wilschut 2010)

Apart from some short lived movements between the first and second world war to promote history lessons emphasizing peace and cooperation rather than nationalism, and an attempt to introduce students to the research methods of  historians, the traditional aims of instilling morality and patriotism remained virtually intact until the end of the 1960s (Little 1990). History teaching continued to focus on educating citizens through chronological narratives of English political history and the study of the great and the good.

Towards the end of the 1960’s the idea that the past should dictate what someone should do or believe in the here and now, or how they should behave, was challenged. The past did not seem to relate to the nature and speed of change in the modern world. At the same time, history lessons were increasingly dismissed as irrelevant and boring by students, achievement in history was poor, and teachers were becoming increasingly pessimistic about the place of their subject in the curriculum on both counts. (Price 1968) The response to this was the Schools History Project, set up in 1972 by Leeds Trinity University. This project was (and still is) based on the belief that ‘learning history should be an enjoyable and life-enhancing experience for all young people,’ and aimed (still does) to campaign for ‘an inclusive and diverse school history curriculum which connects history to student’s lives’

This conceptual change to the history curriculum coincided with other pedagogic changes in education at that time, most notably influenced by the ideas of Bruner (spiral curriculum), Vygotsky (role of language in developing thought) and Bloom (taxonomy of learning). Consequently ideas about what should be taught and how history is conceived as a subject became confused with ideas about how history should be taught and ideas about its pedagogy.  Narrative and chronological concepts of history associated with purposes of developing moral character and patriotism became associated with older more transmissive and didactic pedagogies that included a heavy emphasis upon rote learning and memorization of facts. Thematic or topic based concepts of history associated with personal relevance and cultural relativism became associated with social constructivist pedagogies with a heavy emphasis upon process and meaning. Discussions about the history curriculum have rarely paid detailed attention to challenging these associations. Recent debate in particular seems to assume that a narrative and chronological history cannot be taught through a constructivist pedagogy, and that a culturally relative history cannot be taught didactically, yet either is equally possible.

The purpose of history in the curriculum. 

This brings us back to the importance of considering why history should be taught at all. Central to this consideration is the view of how history relates to the present, and the role of the historian in society. All historical construction operates from a given determinate present and in this sense all history is contemporary. It can be argued, for example, that studying history that was written in 1800 helps us to understand more about 1800 than the history being recounted. History can be written and taught for a range of reasons, including:

  1. To approve and give sanction to actions and values of the present (Butterfield, 1931)
  2. To tell people how to live and behave and what to believe in the present (Laurie, cited in Wilschut 2010)
  3. To give a sense of the complexity of the past and an awareness of the past as a foreign country in order to broaden our perspective of the present (Hartley, 2004)
  4. As a means of constructing and affirming the identity of individuals, groups and societies in the present, or as ‘human self knowledge’. (Collingwood, 1994)

1 and 2 more closely, although not exclusively, underpin purposes of creating moral and responsible human beings and of servicing national-political and civic aims. 3 and 4 similarly underpin purposes of connecting with people’s lives. All of them can be used to further political agendas and more than one approach may be used to write and teach the same history at the same time by different individuals or groups. The dominant purpose however will determine how knowledge and facts are structured in the national curriculum, and, with varying degrees of specificity, what knowledge and facts are to be taught.

The false dichotomy of chronological narrative v topics and themes. 

The current drive is for the return of chronological and narrative history, with specified key events and characters. There is an explicit nationalist purpose behind this linked to 1 and 2 above.  The secretary of state for education has said that history ought to ‘celebrate the distinguished role of these islands in the history of the world’ and portray Britain as ‘a beacon of liberty for others to emulate’. He spoke in parliament of history lessons which focused on ’British heroes and heroines’ leading David Priestland to refer to his proposals as politicised curricular reforms. Government rhetoric around the history curriculum reforms are reminiscent of  the arguments of S.S. Laurie in 1863 cited earlier.

All societies need their narratives to give some coherence to them, but in a democratic society it is the historians role to question these narratives and to prevent them from becoming fossilized and uncritically embedded. The results of a fossilized societal narrative can be seen in the break up of Yugoslavia, the ongoing conflict between Tamils and Bhuddists in Sri Lanka, apartheid in South Africa, the Catalan bid for independence in Spain, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and so on. As John Elliott noted, there are always alternative narratives to the super-national and it is important democratically that historians bring them to prominence so that myths don’t take over. A democratic approach to chronological narrative history therefore requires scope for more than one narrative, or for a choice of narratives. It demands that whether through didactic or constructivist pedagogies, the narrative is viewed and challenged from a range of perspectives. The secretary of state for education says that history should celebrate rather than denigrate Britain’s role through the ages and show that guilt about our past is misplaced. That is to say, for example, that we teach the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and ignore the narrative of the first war of independence, that we judge Churchill a hero and ignore the view that he was an incompetent blunderer. The secretary of state is proposing to use the history curriculum as a mechanism for fossilization rather than a mechanism for busting myths, and this is democratically corrupt, not to mention potentially dangerous.

A more practical problem with a chronological narrative approach is the volume of knowledge and facts involved and the increasingly limited amount of time given to history lessons in schools and academies. Where on the timeline of history would this chronological narrative begin and end and where would it skip and jump across the centuries and the globe in order to fit the volume of substantive content to the volume of available time? Even for a simplified and nationally oriented view of our island history the identification of knowledge and facts would still need to be highly selective. A more global and democratic approach would have to be even more selective. The need, for example, to trace different divergences and convergences of historical narratives across the globe in order to consider alternative perspectives, or to use history to address transnational problems such as gender equality or immigration, leads to a volume of knowledge and facts that is boundless and borderless. Whilst the possibilities of knowledge are increasing, curriculum time for the subject is decreasing.

One solution to the challenge of boundless knowledge is to organize it into topics and themes rather than by chronology. Topics and themes can be conceptual or defined by a specific time and place. For example, the history of economics, religion, the constitution, or history of the enlightenment in Europe, the Harrapan Empire or the first world war. The problem with this approach is that it can lead to fragmentation and misconceptions about the development of ideas and movements in history.  My own experience of teaching history in primary schools is testament to this and I am undecided if hopping from Saxons to Ancient Greeks then on to the Tudors was of any consequence to the students’ developing knowledge and understanding of history or not. It certainly lent itself to specialization around the topic and to an exciting journey through a particular place and time, but it did not lend itself to making meaningful links between those places and times or connecting topics across the curriculum in general. In making a similar point Gordon Marsden (MP) described history teaching in England as no different to a sushi restaurant with lots of little bits and no connection to a meal.

In the end, given the volume of knowledge and facts and the limitations of time, it seems to be splitting hairs somewhat to make any great distinction between a chronological narrative and a thematic or topic based approach to organizing those knowledge and facts when in both cases a high degree of selection is necessary. Topics and themes can be presented as chronological narratives within their defining boundaries. Chronological narratives need to select topics defined by time and place, or key events. The critical point here is that as John Clare notes, in selecting key events/people or topics/themes, we move from interpretations to judgements of significance. Such judgements are always very debatable, and even more so when the criteria for their selection is not made explicit. In choosing facts or topics we are also choosing what version and view of history we are going to teach and ultimately that choice is guided by our beliefs about the purpose and value of history in the curriculum.

How we teach history.

Much of the debate about how history should be taught has centered on reductive and somewhat stereotypical labeling of pedagogy as being either didactic, transmissive, child centered or progressive, and polemical arguments about knowledge and process that have a tendency to see the relationship between them as linear (what comes first) rather than organic. How history could or should be taught depends upon the purpose of teaching it and upon knowledge of how students learn (which in turn, however ‘scientific’ the research underlying it, is also essentially ideologically premised.) If part of the purpose of teaching history is to enculture students into being able to think and behave like historians and to keep open the possibility that some of them may become historians, then it will be necessary in some way and at some point to teach the skills and processes that historians use to generate their particular kinds of knowledge. Democratically it is hard (impossible even) to think of reasons for not doing this. If we don’t make explicit how knowledge is generated, and what gives it validity and value, learning becomes little more than indoctrination and learners become fettered with the incapacity to discriminate between sense and nonsense or make informed life choices.

In conclusion.

I will not dwell here upon the finer points of pedagogy as a) the subject is too large to brush off in a paragraph and b) the point of this blog is to show that we need to know why we are teaching history before we can make a coherent and informed case for what should be taught and how. Fundamentally, bias and narrative choice aside, history is the story of our world; the story of how individuals and groups have interacted and affected each other over time and place. It is a story that is open to re-interpretation and re-telling over time and place and that very fact allows it to function as a vehicle for examining, and making choices about, the values, attitudes and behaviour appropriate to the kind of world and society we want to live in or leave behind. It is not just the history being told that can inform such an examination, but equally the way in which it is told, and the fact that the same story can be told differently. This is not about learning from history (whatever that means) but about understanding our present in all its complexity, and from a wide range of perspectives, so that we can make choices about the future. In my view, the purpose of teaching history is to contribute to the learning of knowledge and skills that will enable future generations to actively participate in the activities of deliberation, consensus, and collective action that are essential to a socially just and democratic society. It is also my view that until there has been time for a more considered debate, starting from an articulation of why we are teaching history, the current history curriculum could serve this purpose. In my view, issues over students’ subject knowledge and achievements in history that are used as arguments for change are in fact more about assessment and its influence on teaching and resources, than about the curriculum and as John Clare writes:

‘If you read the current National Curriculum intelligently, you will see that it does not prescribe any presentist ‘pathway’ or teleological start- and end-points.  It requires teacher-and-pupils to study ‘topics’ only of their own choosing, and demands instead that they apply historical skills to the content, make links between the various topics, and consider the significance of what they have learned.  If you look at the attainment target, you will see that it defines narrative history as the simplest level of study, followed by explanation, after which analysis and discussion (in the light of how other historians have interpreted the topic) represent the highest achievement.’

The debate about what and how will always rumble on, and always has. The debate about why we teach history (or any other subject for that matter) needs to begin.

  •  Butterfield, H (1931) The Whig Interpretation of History. Graham Bell
  • Collingwood, R. G. (1994) The Idea of History : with lectures 1926-1928. OUP
  • Eliott, T. S. (1952)  The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Hartley, L. P. (2004) The Go-between. Penguin Modern Classics
  • Little, V. (1990) A national curriculum in history: a very contentious issue. British Journal of Educational Studies, 38(4), 319–334.
  • Price, M. (1968) History in danger. History, 53(179), 342–347.
  • Wilschut, A. J. (2010) ‘History at the mercy of politicians and ideologies: Germany, England and the Netherlands in the 19th and 20th centuries’ Journal of Curriculum Studies, vol 42, no.5, 693-723

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s