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The purposes of school history

Declaring a position: (some quotes that I think are either very well written/expressed, or which I think make a particularly important point which anyone who is going to be a history teacher should at least read and consider).


‘It does require some little imagination to realise what the consequences will be of not educating our children to sort out the differences between essential and non-essential information, raw fact, prejudice, half-truth and untruth, so that they know when they are being manipulated, by whom, and for what purpose.’

Longworth, N. (1981) We’re moving into the information society- what shall we teach the children?, Computer Education, June: 17-19.



‘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).



‘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.



‘History is highly relevant to us all and has an important job to play. Arguably it is so relevant to understanding our contemporary world that there is a strong case that it should be a compulsory subject at least to the age of 16 and, in various guises, even beyond… However, the essential caveat in addressing issues is that history must not lose its integrity and become distorted for different purposes. History's main contribution to the UK's democracy has always been its plurality and unpredictability - different historians coming at events and people from different perspectives, using evidence critically and with integrity, and presenting different views. Above all else, history needs to provide young people with the ability to make up their own minds.’

Ofsted (2005) From The Annual Report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools 2004/05: http://live.ofsted.gov.uk/publications/annualreport0405/4.2.7.html.



‘The divorce between current affairs and history, so that they are regarded as two different subjects, gravely weakens both. It accentuates the natural tendency of children to regard history as something remote and irrelevant instead of something which has formed the world around them and which is continuously being formed by that world. And, it accentuates equally the tendency to look at contemporary questions as though they had no context in time, no parallels or precedents.’

Ministry of Education (1952) Teaching History, pamphlet No. 23, London, HMSO: 32.




‘The Greek word which has become ”history” originally meant “to enquire”, and more specifically, indicated a person who was able to choose wisely between conflicting accounts.1

Arnold, J. (2000) History: a very short introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press: 18.




‘The reason for teaching history is not that it changes society, but that it changes pupils; it changes what they see in the world, and how they see it….  To say someone has learnt history is to say something very wide ranging about the way in which he or she is likely to make sense of the world. History offers a way of seeing almost any substantive issue in human affairs, subject to certain procedures and standards, whatever feelings one may have.’

Lee, P. (1992) ‘History in school: aims, purposes and approaches. A reply to John White’, in Lee, P, Slater, J. Walsh, P. and White, J., The aims of school history: the National Curriculum and beyond, London, Tufnell Press (p. 23-4).




“The right answer approach is deeply ingrained in our thinking. This  might be fine for some mathematical problems which do indeed have one right answer. The difficulty is that most of life isn’t that way, it is deeply ambiguous.”

Richard Van Oech, ‘A whack on the side of the head’, 1990.




‘History is a “crap-detecting” subject’

Postman, N. and Weingartner, C. (1998) Quoted in ‘Turning the tables’, MacBeath, J., Observer, 22 February.



‘History is being invented in vast quantities…  the world is today full of people inventing histories and lying about history and that’s largely because the people who do this are not actually interested in the past. What they are interested in is something which will make the punters feel good.  At present it’s more important to have historians, especially sceptical historians, than ever before.’

Hobsbawn, E. (historian) (2002) ‘Man of the extreme century’, Observer, 22 September.




‘It is not a school’s task to produce good citizens any more than it is to produce Christian gentlemen. The school does not give people their political ideals or religious faith but the means to discover both for themselves. Above all, it gives them the scepticism to doubt, rather than the inclination to believe. In this sense, a good school is subversive of current orthodoxy in politics, religion and learning. Of course, by placing the emphasis on radical independence of mind, we run the risk of producing, for example, an intelligent traitor rather than a stupid patriot. But the risk of failing is much greater because the result may be a sham democracy in which citizens do not have the independence to participate’

John Rae, 1973, ‘On teaching independence’, New Statesman, 21 September.)




‘The strict duty of every school is to ensure that…every pupil has what I shall call a grounding. By this I mean an understanding of all those things which it is necessary to understand in order to take a properly independent role in the life of our society. To be such an independent actor, people must be able to read and comprehend information of divers sorts, otherwise, they are unable to make properly independent choices about their jobs, their houses, their everyday purposes, their travel and so forth. They must be able to make sense of the news papers, and the spoken words of public life, since how else can they hold independent, informed attitudes about their governors, and the political system? A person who lacks such a grounding, and is therefore unable to take an independent part in the life of our society, clearly represents a failure on the part of the school or schools he attended.’

Letwin, O. (1989) ‘Grounding comes first’, in B. Moon, P. Murphy, and J. Raynor, (eds), Policies for the Curriculum, London, Hodder, and Stoughton: 70.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   



‘I suggest that it is a sound principle never to treat any comment from any spokesperson for any vested interest with anything other than profound scepticism, never to ask for a story but to find it out for yourself, and if ever you are being given a story, to ask first why you are being given it.’

Jeremy Paxman, TV presenter and writer (2000) Extract from the Philip Geddes Memorial Lecture, quoted in ‘All is not what it seems, Guardian, 8 May.



‘If history does not guarantee attitudes or aspirations, it is a necessary if not a sufficient condition which might enable the making of informed choices. It not only helps us to understand the identity of our communities, cultures, nations, by knowing something of their past, but also enables our loyalties to them to be moderated by informed and responsible scepticism. But we must not expect too much. It cannot guarantee tolerance, though it can give it some intellectual weapons. It cannot keep open closed minds. Although it may, sometimes, leave a nagging grain of doubt in them. Historical thinking is primarily mind opening, not socialising.’

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




“It’s difficult to change the way you see the world. We take on a certain view when we are young then spend the rest of  our lives collecting the evidence.”

Andrew Miller, (2001)  Oxygen,  London, Spectre: 104.




‘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.



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