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The purposes of school history

Other quotations that in some way argue for or suggest  the need for pupils to do history in schools:


‘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. 



‘I want the young to be able to use language with power, precision, subtlety and nuance, always knowing that words can hurt.’

Gunther Kress, Guardian, 6 November 2004



“Out of the 40 or so centuries of human civilisation, the 20th, as we designate it, was without doubt one of the very worst, a period during which mankind disgraced itself on a hitherto undreamed of scale and with maniacal ingenuity.”

Banville, J. (2004) Guardian, 21 February.



“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.



‘A new situation has arisen throughout the world created by the spread of literacy among the people and the miraculous improvement of the means of communication. Always the opinions of relatively small publics have been a prime force in political life, but now, for the first time in history, we are confronted nearly everywhere by mass opinion, as the final determinant of political and economic action. Today, public  opinion operates in quite new dimensions and with new intensities it s surging impact upon  events becomes the characteristic of the current age and its ruin or salvation.’

Start of 1st page of first edition of the journal  Public Opinion Quarterly 1st volume of journal: Public opinion Quarterly (on ed. Board, Mr Gallup) 1937



‘In America, much foreign policy seems contrived to be an exercise in political theory with no attention to history whatsoever. Yet there’s a great reverence for history – though it’s history as thumb-sucking, security blanket-nibbling self-congratulation.’

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



‘The way history is currently taught in schools, jumping from Hitler to the Henrys, is like a nightmare vision of Star Wars, where you have episode four before you have episode one. The sense of going on a journey of chronology and continuity, is incredibly important to the imagination.’

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



“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’

‘History can be taught in a way which develops pupils’ knowledge and understanding of the substantive past and helps them to handle information intelligently. It has been inelegantly described by Postman and Weingartner as a ‘crap-detecting’ subject. It is difficult to think of another school subject which offers the same potential for the development of this skill, or (in the age of spin doctors, media manipulation, soundbite politics and information overload,  any other time in history when it has been a more precious asset for school leavers to possess.’

Postman, N. and Weingartner, C. (1998) Quoted in ‘Turning the tables’, MacBeath, J., Observer, 22 February. Haydn, T. (2004) History, in J. White (ed.), Rethinking the school curriculum, values, aims and purposes, London, RoutledgeFalmer: 101.


‘Historians are dangerous people. They are capable of upsetting everything.’

Nikita Khrushchev, quoted in History in the primary and secondary years, HMI, London, HMSO (1985)



‘Oppression does not stand on the doorstep with a toothbrush moustache and a swastika armband. It creeps up insidiously, step by step.’ 

Lord Lane, quoted in Supple, C. (1994) ‘Teaching about the Holocaust, Citizenship, Vol. 3, No. 2, 27-8.



‘Historical thinking is the implacable and enemy of unexamined and stridently asserted stereotypes….  History teaching will be a powerful weapon against indoctrination provided that it constantly insists on the necessary relationship between  statements about people and available evidence.’

HMI (1985) History in the primary and secondary years, London, HMSO: 32.



‘Young people need to be taught to ‘discern between information and propaganda.’

Blunkett, D. (politician) (1999), Address to Citizenship Conference, Institute of Education, University of London, 7 July.



‘Young people need to develop a full understanding of their roles and responsibilities as citizens in a modern democracy, and be better equipped to deal with the difficult moral and social questions that arise in their lives and in society.’

Blunkett, D. (2000) Quoted in ‘Tomorrow’s Citizens’, Times Educational Supplement, 1 December.


‘How would someone adhering to the rules and procedures of the discipline of history conduct the enquiry into this matter?’ is the position which helps to guide history teachers through  some of the sensitive areas which diversity issues sometimes generate.’

Quoted in Arthur, J. et al. (2001) Citizenship through secondary history, London, RoutledgeFalmer: p. 107.


‘Perhaps the biggest single contribution which school history can make in the area of  citizenship and diversity (and political literacy in general), is to learn not to accept information at face value, and to develop the skills to ‘decode’, analyse and assess the validity of the information they are presented with.  Given the ability which modern technocratic governments (and multi-national corporations) have to control and ‘spin’ information, it is not unreasonable to suggest that citizens should be able to subject the statements of their rulers to the same ‘tests’ and critical scrutiny as any other sources. Can we always rely on government to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about, for example, radioactive leakage from nuclear plant, or  whether it is safe to eat beef? This is not to suggest that our governments are particularly or unusually wicked, but that one part of political literacy is the awareness that the nature of politics is such that full disclosure and transparency is sometimes difficult, even in liberal democratic societies. The recent debate over asylum seekers is a good example of the importance of having citizens who are  aware of the complexities and motives of policy moves in this area. Teaching pupils to develop an understanding of how contextual factors can influence the ways in which information is presented is an important part of producing politically literate citizens.’

 Quoted in Arthur, J. et al. (2001) Citizenship through secondary history, London, RoutledgeFalmer: p. 108.



‘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.)



‘Why were there so many soldiers when there wasn’t a war? Why were there so many apricot trees in the countryside but never any apricots in the shops? Why is there fog over the city in the summer? The questions were not dangerous and Peter had answered easily enough. Because they are there to protect us. Because we need to sell them abroad for hard currency that we need. Because there are many factories working at full capacity… Angelina was always content with the answers. What stirred him most was the innocent child’s passive satisfaction, with responses he knew to be at best plausible evasions. As he lay awake, fretting in the dark, Angelina’s condition expanded until it became symptomatic of the whole country. Could a nation lose its capacity for scepticism, for useful doubt? What if the muscle of contradiction simply atrophied from lack of exercise.’

Julian Barnes, (1992) The porcupine, London, Jonathan Cape: 78.


‘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.



‘Experience and history teaches us this: that people and governments have learnt nothing from history, nor acted on principles deduced from it.’

Hegel, G.W. (1807), in The philosophy of history.



‘History punishes those that come late to it.’

Gorbachev, M. , in The international educational quotations encyclopaedia, Noble, K., Buckingham, Open University Press. (1995).



‘The essential matter of history is not what happened but what people thought or said about it.’

Maitland, F., in The international educational quotations encyclopaedia, Noble, K., Buckingham, Open University Press. (1995)



‘ Those that cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

Santayana, G. in The life of reason, 1905.



‘History as a discipline can be characterised as having a collective forgetfulness about women.’

Stoll, C.S. (1974) Female and Male.



‘History is the propaganda of the victors.’

Toller, E., in The international educational quotations encyclopaedia, Noble, K., Buckingham, Open University Press. (1995)



‘Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.’

Wells, H.G., in The international educational quotations encyclopaedia, Noble, K., Buckingham, Open University Press. (1995)



‘There are those who feel comfortable about teaching history, as long as it remains firmly about the past.’

Gallagher, C. (2002) The future of history and the challenge of citizenship, in A. McCully and C. O’ Neill (eds) Values in history teacher education and research, Lancaster, HTEN: 44-53.



‘Knowing about the past is never just about knowing “when things happened”.  If pupils cannot begin to explain why they happened, with what consequences and effects, if they cannot explain why some historical periods and events  have a significance and resonance for them, in short, if they cannot develop an interpretive framework for their understandings of the past, then knowing about the past is reduced to a sort of quiz game. For this reason, understanding the past is inseparably also about finding out what evidence exists, how it might be interpreted,  what limitations it has and about how historical events might be described by different commentators.’

Chris Husbands (1996) What is history teaching?, Buckingham, Open University Press:  133.



‘Not all human beings throughout the whole of time can be studied. Historians are obliged to select. Selection involves a value judgement which gives public importance and status to those who are selected and implicitly, sometimes deliberately, denies it to those who are not. History is not a value free enterprise. All these characteristics justify the status of history as a distinct subject and discipline.’

John Slater (1992) Where there is dogma, may we sow doubt, in Lee, P. et al., The aims of school history: the National Curriculum and beyond, London, Tufnell Press: 45.



‘History does not allow us to say, “Ah, now I know all about the Civil War, “Now I understand exactly why there was a war in Vietnam” or ‘why Auschwitz existed’. Outcomes of studying history are unpredictable, often unexpected and generally modest – a matter of diminishing ignorance and lessening misunderstanding. There remains however, always, the exciting possibility that there is perhaps more still to discover.’

John Slater (1992) Where there is dogma, may we sow doubt, in Lee, P. et al., The aims of school history: the National Curriculum and beyond, London, Tufnell Press: 45.



‘Dear Delio,

I am feeling a little tired and can’t write much. But please write to me all the same and tell me everything at school that interests you. I think you must like history, as I liked it when I was your age, because it deals with living people, and everything that concerns people, as many people as possible, all people in the world, in so far as they unite together in society and work and struggle and make a bid for a better life. All that can’t fail to please you more than anything else, isn’t that right?’

From Antonio Gramsci’s last letter from prison to his son, 1937.



‘Advances in technology will inevitably mean that just as people now edit pictures at home on their PCs to make fakes for fun, they will soon be able to do the same with video. In the near future, it wil be impossible to trust any picture, movie or soundbite. If that doesn’t frighten you, it’s because you haven’t really thought about it…. There are people who believe anything.’

Dave Birch (2002) ‘Technology that fakes the truth’ Guardian Online, 4 July.



‘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.



‘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.



‘We prefer to nurture our own truths rather than listen to the experience of those on the other side…  My grandparents had fought in an earlier phase of the Irish conflict and lived through the horror of civil war. Yet in our early days at school in Dublin, we were never taught about the true horror of those days or the pain experienced by those on the other side. The failure to understand the pain of others is one of the greatest tragedies of divided societies. It perpetuates the agony.’

Fergal Keane, (journalist) (2006) ‘I don’t seek sorrow or redemption’: preview of Facing the truth, BBC2,  4 March.



“A society sure of its values had needed history only to celebrate the glories of the past, but a society of changing values and consequent confusions also needed history as a utilitarian guide.’

Thomas Cochran, quoted by John Simkin, (2006): TES Online Forum.


‘Facts are not the same thing as the truth. Sometimes they can get in the way of the truth.’

Maya Angelou



‘History shouldn’t be just a thing of the past. It can help us to understand why things are going wrong. Just ask Tony Blair.’

Joan Bakewell (2004) ‘Just 70’, Guardian, 22 October.



‘You can’t expect to learn everything but  it’s important to know about key events of British history in order and some key international events. Children should have some idea of what people wore in the fourteenth century and what they did though not necessarily who all the kings and queens were.’

Michael Saunders (1989) Chair of the History Working Group asked to draw up the National Curriculum for History, Observer, 12 March.



‘History for its own sake, history for explaining and understanding the present, history for understanding other cultures, history for political and economic awareness (old style citizenship, often seen as history for tolerance and international understanding), history for appreciation of national heritage, or history as a process not a content.’

Historical Association (1988) History in the National Curriculum: 15.



‘History will carry a major responsibility for cross-curricular themes like economic and industrial awareness, political literacy, international and European understanding, law-related education and environmental awareness.’

Historical Association (1989) History in the National Curriculum: submission to the working group on the National Curriculum, February.



‘History is a vital intellectual discipline whose value transcends the absorption of whatever facts politicians deem relevant… it occupies a special place in our lives, telling us who we are and what we could be in ways that no other subject or intellectual discipline can. ’

Michael Wills (Labour M.P.) (2005) A politician’s view, Address at IHR Conference, London, 26 October. Online http://www.history.ac.uk/education/conference/wills.html,last accessed 21 August 2008.



‘Nothing is more important to the survival of the British nation than an understanding among its young of our shared heritage and the nature of the struggles, foreign and domestic, which have secured our freedoms’.

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.



‘History is a marvellous way of getting children to think critically about factual situations and make their own judgements. Of course pupils need to know some history, remember it, but also use it. By thinking critically, I mean engaging with the kinds of enquiries I have been putting before you: recognising, and learning by trying to do it that historical explanations are usually complex and might involve reasons of different kinds, and of different weights, requiring careful use of language. History requires recognising, and learning by trying it, that statements need to be backed with evidence, from the history, and ultimately from the sources. Pupils need to be taught to recognise that historical events have attributed significance and that these attributions amount to interpretations. They need to begin to analyse how these are made, and why they differ’.

Chris Culpin (2007) What kind of history should school history be?, Medlicott Medal Lecture, 2007. http://www.history.org.uk/resources/he_resource_747_9.html, 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.



‘Subject that bulk as large in the curriculum as history and geography must represent a general function in the development of a truly socialised and intellectualised experience.’

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education, Chapter 16, The significance  of geography and history,  http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/ Publications/Projects/digitexts/ dewey/d_e/chapter16.html



‘History education should have as its goal the development of free individuals capable of independent democratic and socially responsible judgment, rather than overt or covert indoctrination…. A new historical awareness is needed today so that we can understand how the world arrived at its present state, how to build bridges across past and present divisions, how to articulate an understanding and appreciation for cultural differences, and how to make the world a better and safer place in which to live.’

International Society for History Didactics (2007) http://www.int-soc-hist-didact.org/.

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