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The purposes of school history

Statements about history to develop skills of  critical judgement:

‘’To use their reason as well as their memories, and to develop skills of analysis and criticism in a situation in which there cannot be a provably right answer.’

Sir Keith Joseph (1984)

‘Why teach history in school?’, The Historian, No. 2 (Insert).


‘’History is concerned not with the conveying of facts but with the making of informed judgements, and to the display of the evidence on which those judgements are made.’

H.M.I. (1985) History in the Primary and Secondary years, London, HMSO: 1.


‘The historian’s insistence that the judgements of individuals and groups be based on evidence, and on constant opportunities to understand the predicaments and attitudes of other people. History helps its students living in an open society to decide between alternative attitudes, courses of action with some degree of knowledge, understanding and competence.’

H.M.I. (1985) History in the Primary and Secondary years, London, HMSO: 12.


‘Thinking historically constantly demands the questions ‘What is it like to be someone else?’ and ‘How do I know this is true?’ These questions are assertions of intellectual independence. They do not encourage deference nor always give comfort. They are not likely to be welcomed in a closed or authoritarian society. Thinking historically is not only one manifestation of an open society, it is also one of the guarantors of its continued existence.’

HMI (educationalist) (1985), London, HMSO.


‘’If the country is to survive as a democracy it will depend on voters who understand how our political institutions have evolved and the events that went into their creation. A nation’s sense of its history is indistinguishable from its social cohesion.’

Alan Bullock, historian.


‘’History is a tool to penetrate and deflate the hypocrisies of the modern world.’

John Kenyon, historian.


‘’History will help to remedy intellectual faults such as excessive concentration on one line of thought, absence of understanding for other points of view, belief in simple solutions, lack of balance of mind, absence of an imaginative understanding.’

G. Elton, historian.


They (young people) are constantly confronted by persuasion from political parties, pressure groups, the media and advertisers. At 16 some will be members of a trades union; at 18 all will have the vote. Young people will be helped to cope with a bewildering world if they have some understanding of political and economic history, demonstrating the use and abuse of political power, the long-term effects of policies, and the complexity of cause and effect. But their effectiveness as citizens will depend above all on the crucial historical skill of assessing and evaluating the record of human behaviour.’

HMI (educationalist) (1985) History in the primary and secondary years, London, HMSO: 2.


‘History offers a variety of tools for effecting liberation from intrusive authority, outworn creeds and the counsel of despair.’

Appleby, J., Hunt, L and Jacob, M. (1994) Telling the truth about history, New York, Norton: 308-9.


‘Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.’

Thomas Jefferson, American politician.


‘We are hurtling towards self-destruction at an alarming rate thanks chiefly to an advertising and propaganda system that goads people from infancy towards apathy, isolation, passivity, helplessness and separation.' 

Chomsky, N. (2003) Interview: Noam Chomsky, BBC World Service, 19 December.



“Part of the government agenda is that citizenship requires people to think for themselves.”

Reva Klein, TES, 24/3/00


‘School history  provides a framework for pupils to discuss polemical and contentious issues within academic canons of reliability, explanation and justification.’

Husbands, C. (1996) What is history teaching?, Buckingham, Open University Press: 81.


‘The main reason for teaching history in schools is as a necessary element  in the cultivation of those personal qualities of students… which fit them to be citizens of a liberal democratic society.’

John White (1992) The purpose of school history: has the National Curriculum got it right?, in Lee, P. et al., The aims of school history: the National Curriculum and beyond, London, Tufnell Press: 20.


‘History…  does not seek either to sustain or devalue tradition, heritage or culture. It does not assume that there are shared values waiting to be defined and demanding to be supported. It does not require us to believe that a society’s values are always valuable. If history seeks to guarantee any of these things, it ceases to be history and becomes indoctrination. The new history offers very barren and infertile ground to the indoctrinators.’

John Slater (1989) The politics of history teaching: a humanity dehumanised?, London, Institute of Education: 15-16.


‘History endows us with the invaluable mental power we call judgement.’

Woodrow Wilson, quoted in Wineburg, S. (2001) Historical Thinking and other unnatural acts, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, ix.


‘The role of history as a tool for changing how we think, for promoting a literacy not of names and dates but of discernment, judgement and caution, does not receive prime billing in the public sphere.’

Wineburg, S. (2001) Historical Thinking and other unnatural acts, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, ix.


‘History teaches us a way to make choices, to balance opinions, to tell stories and to become uneasy – when necessary – about the stories we tell. This history is worlds apart from Ross Limbaugh’s version, “History is real simple. You know what history is? It’s what happened.”’

Wineburg, S. (2001) Historical Thinking and other unnatural acts, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, ix.


‘History offers a storehouse of complex and rich problems, not unlike those that confront us daily in the social world. Examining these problems requires an interpretive acumen that extends beyond the “locate information in the text” skills that dominate many school tasks.’

Wineburg, S. (2001) Historical Thinking and other unnatural acts, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 51.


‘We are all called on to engage in historical thinking – called on to see human motive in the texts we read; called on to mine truth from the quicksand of innuendo, half truth and falsehood that seeks to engulf us each day, called on to brave the fact that certainty, at least in understanding the social world, remains elusive and beyond our grasp.’

Wineburg, S. (2001) Historical Thinking and other unnatural acts, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 83.


‘The study of history of any kind is important because it teaches and hones analytical skills. The ability to weigh and judge evidence and to discriminate between fact and fabrication should not lightly be disregarded. In a world of spin, dodgy dossiers and forged contracts, such skills are at a higher premium than ever before. The overriding purpose of education… is to teach us when a person is talking rot.’

Morris, M. (2003) The Guardian, 10 May: 23.


‘History is an evidence-producing activity which plays an important part in the preparation of pupils for the demands of life outside and beyond school, where they will be confronted with a  mass of information, much of it conflicting and much of  it advanced by advocates of particular political or commercial persuasions. The intellectual discipline of collecting, processing and rigorously analysing historical evidence is then,  one of the ways in which teachers in schools prepare pupils for analysing information they will be presented with later.’

Husbands, C. (1996) What is History Teaching?, Buckingham, Open University Press: 16.


‘Only in this way (through studying history) will he (the pupil) learn the lesson, valuable to him throughout life, that there are generally two sides to a question, and that the discovery of truth requires the exercise of thought and judgement.’ 

Oxford Supplementary histories (1915), Men and scenes of Tudor times, preface, page 4, quoted in Batho, G. (1986) From a test of memory to a training for life, in Price, M.H. (ed) The development of the secondary curriculum.


‘The history teacher’s job is to ‘bring them (pupils) to the point where they can begin their own interpretation of historical evidence.’

Joseph, K. (1984) Why teach history in school? The Historian, Spring: insert.


‘Our purpose is not to point a moral or to adorn a tale, but without some perspective as to what ought to be valued in human life and on what grounds, there can be little meaning or significance in history for our pupils or for us.’

Partington, G. (1980) The idea of an historical education, quoted in Historical Association (1988) History in the National Curriculum: 18.


‘To act in an historical context is one way to act intelligently, to act in an historical context is to act with critical consciousness of history, not simply to be acted upon by tradition. An understanding of historical context does not yield predictive generalisations abut it improves our estimate of situations and hence our judgement of possibilities, thereby helping us to escape being surprised – in the sense of being ambushed – by the future.’

HMI (1985) History in the primary and secondary years, London, HMSO: 40.


‘The beauty and the value of history is not that it teaches one view of the world or one perspective on changing events - but that it enables all of us, young and old, to engage in debate and to understand how differing viewpoints have always been with us’.

Tim Collins (as Shadow Secretary of State for Education) (2005) Address to National Catholic Heads Conference, 27 January. Online at http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2005/jan/27/schools.uk3, last accessed 21 August 2008.


‘To prepare young people to develop the abilities to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse democratic society in an interdependent world.’

National Council for the Social Studies (1994) Expectations for excellence: curriculum standards for social studies, Washington D.C: 157.


‘The complicated interplay of evidence which is itself not certain and subject to interpretation gives history a particularly valuable part in the development of an adult understanding. It helps pupils to understand that there is a range of questions – be they political, economic, social or cultural – on which there is no single right answer, where opinions have to be tolerated but need to be subjected to the test of evidence and argument. As the pupil progresses in this encounter with history, he should be helped to acquire a sense of the necessity for personal judgements in the light of facts – recognising that the facts often be far from easy to establish and far from conclusive. And it should equally awaken a recognition of the possible legitimacy of other points of view. In other words, it seems to be that the teaching of history has to take place in a spirit which takes seriously the need to pursue truth on the basis of evidence, and at the same time accepts the need for give and take in that pursuit and that teaching in that spirit should encourage pupils to take a similar approach.

Sir Keith Joseph (1984) ‘Why teach history in school?’, The Historian, No. 2 (Insert).


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