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What is History in schools for?

Published: March 11, 2010 at 2:34 pm
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Let’s come straight to the point. What is history in schools for? I ask because the answer, though currently widely debated, seems to be far from obvious to our rulers, or even to some who teach the subject. I’m not wholly surprised: I myself don’t believe most of the reasons that are usually produced.


A firm favourite with government at the moment is the idea of ‘identity’ or – if you want to be really multicultural and daring – ‘identities’. In this view, an essentially fissiparous society is held together by allowing every group to see where it ‘fits’ into the overall narrative. Possibly: though it seems to me that this is at least as likely to focus pupils on what divides them, rather than what unites them.

It wouldn’t be the first example of well-meant policies resulting in the opposite of what was intended. Years of studying Nazism haven’t necessarily resulted in any great conversion to the need for mutual tolerance and understanding. As successive ambassadors from the Federal Republic have complained, a consequence for some pupils has instead been the legitimising of anti-German sentiment. This is what happens when history and citizenship get confused.

There’s also what you might call the ‘pragmatic’ approach to history education, usually signalled by referring to Santayana’s dictum that those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it. I can’t see any evidence that he was right. For good or ill, it isn’t possible to ‘repeat’ history: one reason, in my view, why it can’t be classified as a science. It might be more accurate to argue that those who quote philosophers out of context are condemned to repeat themselves.

A few years ago it was quite trendy to talk about ‘transferable skills’. This was particularly true of those who were keener on source analysis than on knowledge. I didn’t find that it worked in practice. You could spend lesson after lesson analysing sources for reliability, and still find that students tended to believe whatever they’d just read on a website or seen on television.

The lack of connection pupils make between classroom activities and life outside has always worried most educationalists. I don’t happen to be one of them. In fact I’m highly suspicious of the assumption – axiomatic in educational circles – that the duty of the classroom teacher is to bring the two together in the interest of ‘relevance’. I’ve more sympathy with the idea that studying history helps people to process information. However, plenty of other subjects can claim the same. It’s hard to see what really makes history special. And it clearly isn’t special for the 70% of pupils who drop it at the age of fourteen.

The real problem, it seems to me, is that education has lost its direction. We once took it for granted that everyone ought to know some history, just as they ought to know some science, or be able to read, write or manipulate numbers. It wasn’t that it was ‘useful’, or contributed directly to the gross domestic product. It was simply one of the distinguishing characteristics of a civilised human being.


Nowadays most educational leaders are terrified of this sort of value judgement, if they understand it at all. They know all about the latest educational fad; they know all about ‘managing’ [by which they mean skewing] data; they’re expert at pretending that all will be well once the next expensive initiative has been implemented. But you try asking them what it’s all for.


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