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The purposes of school history

Statements about school history to develop knowledge/understanding/awareness/’a mental map’ of  the country and the society they live in:

‘They (young people)  cannot play their full part in operating and improving the institutions of our society or in preserving, constructively criticising and adapting its values, unless they have a well developed sense of our national past. They need to have some feeling of the ebb and flow of events that have led to where we are, how our present political and social fabric and attitudes have their roots in the English Reformation, the Reform Bills, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Suffragette Movement, and how our national security, our place in the world, was shaped by Waterloo and El Alamein.’

Kenneth Baker, politician, Guardian, 24 December.




‘One of the justifications given for teaching history is its role in the ‘orientation’ of pupils, hence concern that pupils might leave school ‘without an adequate mental map of those things which have led us to where we are now and without the wherewithal to form even a preliminary judgement on what was good or bad, glorious or inglorious.’ Kenneth Baker, politician. Guardian, 24 December.

‘’It is only through knowledge of its history that a society can have knowledge of itself. As a man without memory and self-knowledge is a man adrift, so a society without memory (or more correctly without recollection) and self-knowledge would be a society adrift.’

Arthur Marwick, historian.

‘History, well taught, is the demythologising of the past… Take any important issue of our time – Northern Ireland, Nuclear Disarmament, Race, The Welfare State, South Africa – and it becomes impossible to seriously confront any of them without understanding their historical background.’

Lord Bullock, quoted in Historical Association (1989) History in the National Curriculum: submission to the working party on the National Curriculum, February.

‘If we have no tools to judge between different stories about the past, then history would be unable to answer the atavistic instinct that gives rise to the discipline in the first place: how did we get here, and what happened to those before us?’

Charmley, J. (2003) ‘How did we get from here to there?’, Guardian Review, 16 August: 12.

‘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.


‘You impoverish your understanding of what a human being is if you don’t examine your past. Would one have known about brutality, cruelty, courage, virtue, self-sacrifice, cynicism without history? Yes, but observing it in one’s contemporaries is a less reliable, ultimately more shallow source that observing over centuries.’

Schama, S. (2005) Observer magazine, 16 October: 10.


‘There is no evidence that school pupils translate their knowledge of the past into an understanding of the present unless the past is explicitly related to current circumstances.’  Slater, J., (1995) Teaching History in the New Europe, p. 146.
‘There is too little understanding of our democratic and cultural heritage, of the basis of taxation, and spending, of the limits of government, and of what makes people and groups tick.’

John Patten (politician) (1994) ‘Patten castigates young for apathy towards country and community, Guardian, 6 January.

‘’When challenged during inspections about the role of history in the curriculum, pupils are quick to point out that history provides an essential context for being an effective, informed citizen, by helping them to understand in particular, the evolution of the UK, its place in the world and how its history compares with other countries.’

HMI (2005) Taken from the Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector for Schools 2004/5, section relating to history in secondary schools.

‘History is important. More than any other topic, it is about us. Whether one deems our present society wondrous or awful or both, history reveals how we got to this point.’

James W. Loewen (2008) Lies my teacher told me, introduction: 2.

(Advocating the teaching of separate ‘Black History’ in the US) ‘The psychological goals of Black History are remedial. Black History must be taught in order to fight racial prejudice which causes lowered self-esteem and defective self-image.’

Hoover, D. (1970) Black History, in M. Ballard (ed) New movements in the study and teaching of history: 41.

‘Many communities are representatives of cultures that flourished with great distinction long before European colonisation. To ignore these achievements may serve to reinforce or leave unchallenged serious misunderstandings about communities within this country and may also lead to an unbalanced view of world history… The multi-ethnic nature of British society is a further reason why those responsible for designing history courses need to be sensitive about the choice of course content.’

HMI (1985) History in the primary and secondary years, London, HMSO: 31.

(Detailing some flaws and misconceptions in the practice of ‘multi-cultural’ history) ‘First, that any content reflecting a multi-cultural society should emphasise the recent post-war history of the Caribbean, the Indian sub-continent or Africa. Second, that multi-cultural history is concerned principally with problems, conflict and exploitation. Third, that the teaching of those areas is ipse facto of interest to pupils whose families may have originated in those parts of the world, and that, for example, any black pupil will automatically identify and be interested in the history of any black culture or individual. There is also the attitude associated with some of these assumptions – that the present generations in some way share a heritage of guilt for the mistakes, some of criminal proportions, of their predecessors. This point of view is neither morally nor historically justifiable.’

HMI (1985) History in the primary and secondary years, London, HMSO: 31.

‘There are two essentials: that the child should know something of the procession of British life through the centuries and something of the historical forces which are making the framework in which he will live.’

King, B. (1929) Schools of today: 67-8.

‘Our history drives our sense of national identity, and this is why history should be enshrined by politicians at the heart of our education system. Our national identity is central to our politics and so it must be of central concern to politicians. Unresolved questions about our national identity run through many of the great issues facing this country today, from the constitutional settlement, to our role in Europe, from the war against terrorism, to great global flows of people and capital, the resulting rise of a new right-wing populism, the anti-globalisation movement, and even to how and why we deliver public services in the way that we do. Our response and our attitude to all these things is coloured by the sense we have of where we belong, and where we owe our loyalty and why.’

Michael Wills (Labour M.P.) (2005) A politician’s view, address to IHR Conference, London, 26 October, online at

http://www.history.ac.uk/education/conference/wills.html (last accessed 21 August).

History is ‘the body of known facts about the activities and sufferings of the social groups with which our own lives are continuous, and through reference to which our own customs and institutions are illuminated.’

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education, Chapter 16, The significance  of geography and history,  http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/

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