Featured post

Gender in the Merovingian World

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

School History: really, what is the point?

All right, I will cheerily admit that I am not entirely averse to saying things just to provoke people, and even - sometimes, just sometimes - just to annoy them.  So you might want to take what I am going to say in that sort of spirit.  In fact, however, although I am entirely willing to be disagreed with and indeed to change my mind, I am actually quite serious in what I am about to say.

And that is that I find the debates over what sort of history should be taught in school, both the political proposals of the odious Gove and the responses to them to be so intellectually worthless that it leads you (well, me) to wonder whether we might not be better off not teaching history in school at all - or at least not making it compulsory.  I'm serious.

Gove wants schools to focus on a triumphalist narrative of British history.  Is this what Schools history is for?  To foster some kind of petty nationalism? (There was a good response to Gove by Richard Evans not long ago.  I will post the link when I find it.)  I think most of us will agree that it is not, not least because it really runs a risk of alienating significant parts of the modern population of Great Britain unless the way that 'British history' is conceived of undergoes a serious, radical overhaul.  I don't mean by including the Empire, or making sure that all of the British Isles are covered.  I mean by rethinking what Britain (in the present) is and what history has to contribute to it.

Answers to that sort of question have tended to be couched in terms of 'narrative' and 'relevance' - neither of which terms seems to me to encourage any sophisticated understanding of history.  It is perhaps not surprising then that most of the public contributions to the debate (apart from Evans') have come from people that I do not regard as historians, but as writers, journalists, broadcasters and gentlemen-chroniclers or antiquaries.

Many of those of us who teach history at university will agree that schools history instills in students very little sense of what history is really about, and very few of the skills for university history.  I am not entirely sure what a simple factual awareness of British (or any) history is really supposed to do to enhance anyone's life or culture.  I doubt it would do any more than memorising the county towns of England in geography lessons would, or taking up English literature classes with learning which British writers wrote which books (perhaps accompanied by 'memorable quotes').  In other words a rather shallow form of pub quiz general knowledge.  After all, most people think that's all history is in any case...

I have argued before on this blog that history is about interpretive skills and understanding other cultures.  The whole debate needs a major imput from proper historians and moving completely outside the limitations within which it is currently constrained. If schools history is to continue as a political football and the debate on it remains focused simply on what sort of British story it should tell or what bits are most 'relevant' then - seriously - I would be all for making it an optional subject and replacing it with compulsory philosophy.


  1. I think that "Why should we study history?" was a question on my S-Level paper, back in the day. In one of our history classes debate the question (since it came up fairly regularly). Probably one of my more memorable classes, as a few of us were already gearing up to apply for history at university and had never really considered the question.

    Just pointing out that this wider view of history has been on the (extended) curriculum in the past.

  2. Actually I wonder if ANYONE teaching at university level considers school education to be of much use other than perhaps instilling a familiarity with the lingua franca of the subject at hand. It seems that everyone has to start the learning process from scratch once they become an undergraduate.

    On the subject of history, my school experience was (I think) reasonably good and time was devoted to considering the assessment of evidence and developing skills. Exams were still about facts though! Then again I think my history teacher was mainly interested in recruiting wargamers, so we covered the SYW/AWI and Custer's last stand... Of course I turned my back on history as a subject after 'O' level (yes Guy I AM that old despite my boyish good looks) to join the "ranks of the undead" in the words of my history teacher. I don't think he was such a huge fan of the sciences :-)

    Happy grumping!

  3. I could not agree more, there is more to history than the pub quiz knowledge as you called it. How does knowing what happened at Stamford Bridge or the year the Raj ended really benefit you culturally? As a student at school in Canada I was never required to take history, rather we had to take the ominously labelled ‘Social Studies’ alternative and I always kind of resented that. I constantly felt that the focus on other cultures and interpretive skills, as you call them, prevented me from accessing the stuff I really wanted to study – the Middle Ages. I have always found Canadian history (which is obviously very closely related to the history of the British Empire) dreadfully boring. It wasn’t until I went to university and had a very influential lecturer open my eyes that I began to see the reason that I didn’t like Canadian history was its relentless nationalism. Now don’t get me wrong, I am very proud of my Canadian heritage but I feel that the spoon feeding of it to people can be harmful and, quite frankly, off-putting. It leaves little or no room for the ‘non-Canadian’ elements of Canadian culture (native communities, French communities, women, early immigration, etc.). Now that I am well on my way to a career as a professional historian I have often thought of my ‘Social Studies’ days in a different light. In today’s changing world the need to see, react to, and respect, cultural difference has never been more important. Perhaps, the British system needs to adapt the Social Studies model – just a thought.

  4. I don't think that pub-quiz learning is entirely worthless: we do expect and also enjoy a degree of factual awareness, and without it it's not clear what we would be able to analyse. At the very least, school history can provide something for university history to kick against - a point of reference and comparison and a way of making students see that they are being asked to dismantle the 'knowledge' they have accumulated and look at it in a quite different way.

    This said, the debates over the purpose of school history are profoundly depressing. I especially grind my teeth when the word 'relevant' comes up. I remember when I was choosing my A-levels (back when one did only 3, or 4 if exceptionally swotty) I decided against history because my school had just decided to drop the 16th/17th C course and only offer 19th C. The GCSE had been mostly 19th C and I wanted something different. "But why do you want to study the earlier period?" my teacher said. "This is so much more relevant!" (The fact my teacher was like that was another good reason not to do A-level history.)


  5. How does knowing what happened at Stamford Bridge or the year the Raj ended really benefit you culturally?

    Quite a bit, I'd have thought. Knowing that your mate Vijay's dad was caught up in all the unholy shit rain at the end of the Raj make's Vijay's sensitivities around a lot of issues easier to understand than if the Raj had ended with the Norman conquest. Of course fully understanding them also requires knowing that the Raj did end in an unholy shit rain, but it helps.

    Also, knowing what happened at Stamford Bridge (Chelsea were bought out by a Russian gangster) gives you a one liner riposte to the myth that the Normans were inherently superior to the primitive Saxons. It's not much use as a guide to the incredible complexities of North Sea politics in the 11th century, but it's better than nowt.

    chris y

  6. The problem with this is that you're still reducing history to 'facts'. History is about more than that. It leaves open the problems how to decided which facts to include, how to decide which facts are facts, and therefore whose version you tell - in the end of the Raj version, the Hindu or the Muslim, or the Sikh, or even the British colonialist? What school history ought to be about is teaching you how to make an informed stab at making those sorts of decisions and of being able to think critically about the versions of the 'truth' that you hear. Any kind of history can help you do that, so that when you hear your mate Vijay going on about something you can go to a library, find out about the basic events and then know how to look critically into it.
    But I would argue actually that knowing what actually happened in fact *doesn't* help you understand Vijay - because what actually happened does not determine his sensitivity as much as what he thinks - or has been told - happened. This will almost certainly not be the whole story at best and might (in theory) be quite skewed. In extreme cases it might be quite fundamentally misled. [This isn't a comment - obviously - on your mate Vijay, you understand, but on the general problem: the 'history' that informs and underlines the sensitivities of modern Irish sectarians is overwhelmingly based on skewed facts and misconceptions.] What good does knowing that it is only one side of the story (or worse) do you? Telling him the facts of the matter is unlikely to make for a pleasant evening out. More use to have been taught always to think about both sides of a story, and about how even 'facts' about real events can get skewed, and about how people make use of what they think is their past in the present. That is the real use of history and it can be taught from any case study.

    I'd actually argue that


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.