The purposes of school history
does history contribute to social literacy? What ways of thinking,
writing and questioning would be lost if we eliminated history from
Lienhardt, quoted in Wineburg, S. (2001: ix) Historical
Thinking and other unnatural acts, Philadelphia, Temple Press
have always thought that one of the most common causes of weak or
indifferent history lessons taught by PGCE history student teachers is
that they have lost sight of the full range of ways in which the study
of the past might be of benefit to pupils, either in terms of knowing
about and understanding the implications of the particular topic they
are being taught, or knowing about and understanding some of the big
‘themes’ of history that the topic might contribute to, or knowing
about and understanding some things about the discipline of history.
are of course very different views about why young people should be
obliged to study history at school, and although I think some are more
appropriate than others, it is still helpful for student teachers of
history to be aware of the range of views about the purposes of school
here are some quotations about the purposes of school history, or
quotes which in a tangential way point out the importance of having
some sort of historical education (one of my sad little hobbies is
collecting such quotations).
examples are what might be termed ‘traditional’ (or Victorian?)
views about the purposes of school history, some are more recent views
about the purposes of school history.
Some are statements about school history by politicians, some
by historians and some by educationalists.
nothing else, these quotes make
the point that there are different views about why all countries make
young people study history
as part of their education; history for the inculcation of patriotism
or ‘socialisation’, ‘citizenship’; the
need for a knowledge of one’s own country’s past, to have a better
understanding of their identity (or identities), to have a
better understanding of present issues and problems, to teach pupils
about other, different societies and times, to develop a sense of
morality, the cultivation of desirable
attributes and dispositions (e.g. tolerance, open-mindedness, a
sympathetic and informed understanding of different nations, cultures
and religions), the critical and informed scepticism to become
intellectually autonomous and resistant to manipulation and
Why is this of any interest/use to
several recent studies suggest that although many pupils find history
interesting and enjoyable (Biddulph. and Adey. 2001, Fink, 2004, QCA,
2005), many of them have a very limited understanding of why they
study history, and that their understanding bears little relation to
the publicly stated justifications for teaching history.
Research also shows that some pupils consider history to be
boring and useless (Schools Council, 1968, Aldrich, 1987, QCA, 2005).
If teachers are able to develop pupils’ understanding of the
purposes of school history, it is possible that pupils’ motivation
and engagement with the subject may be enhanced. It may also help to
develop student teachers’ understanding of the purposes of school
history. In my experience, one of the most common causes of poor
history teaching by trainee teachers is that they are insufficiently
clear, or have lost sight of why we inflict particular morsels of the
past, and the subject as a whole, on small children.
is also important that all members of history departments are able to
articulate the case for studying history to pupils, parents and senior
management teams. A second phase of the research we did for QCA
focused on why take-up of history post-14 was very high in some
schools and very low in others – the 30% average cited by Ofsted
(2007) conceals massive variations. Part of this is down to history
teachers and departments, but part of it is down to the beliefs of
curriculum managers, and our research showed that not all heads and
assistant heads are persuaded of the relevance and utility of history
for some or all of their pupils).
of my former trainees wrote in an evaluation of one of his lessons,
honestly but disconcertingly, ‘I have no idea why I am teaching
this.’ If the grown ups
aren’t clear about why we are inflicting history on children, what
hope is there that the children will commit to learning history?
I am aware that curriculum time is precious, but perhaps history
teachers could be more explicit about the purposes of studying
the past, the
discipline of history, and particular ‘bits’ of history?
I don’t mean by this making
them write down or remember particular quotes, but to ‘drop them
in’ to lessons from time to time to make a particular point, and
to try and set up a
dialogue with pupils about why history is helpful and relevant
to the lives they will lead outside school and after school.
In our research for QCA about
pupil perceptions of studying history as a school subject (http://www.qca.org.uk/qca_6391.aspx),
in response to a question about why they thought they had to do
history at school, one pupil replied ‘they don’t let you know’.
Perhaps sometimes we make assumptions about pupils’ grasp of why
they need to have an understanding of some aspects of the past and
the discipline of history. I think it might help to improve the
motivation and commitment of some pupils if a bit more time and
thought was given to skilfully working in some information about why
history is worth learning.
the purposes of this website, to stop the page being too long, I have
divided the quotes into different categories.
Quotes about linking the past to the
present. (Why I think these
quotes are particularly important/helpful for history teachers).
Some quotes which are examples of what might be called
‘traditional’ (or ‘Victorian’ views about the purposes of
school history: note that not all of them come from the Victorian
Statements about the need for people to have/develop a sense of
pride/loyalty/ patriotism towards their own country (this raises the
interesting question about whether pupils should be taught about
‘the dark pages’ of their national history – massacres, defeats,
inglorious or shameful elements of the national story).
And some criticisms of this approach.
Statements about school history to develop
knowledge/understanding/awareness/’a mental map’ of
the country and the society they live in.
Statements about history to develop skills of critical
to develop international harmony and discourage crude national
stereotyping and the perpetuation of nationalistic grudges and
Statements about history to develop a sense of
cultivation of desirable attributes and dispositions (e.g. tolerance,
open-mindedness, a sympathetic and informed understanding of different
nations, cultures and religions).
Comments by recent Prime Ministers about school history.
What did Henry Ford say about history?
A quote which raises questions about whether some forms of history are
more important than others (the idea that children should mainly learn
about the main political and constitutional history of their country,
wars, revolutions, prime ministers, political reforms etc). It is by
Ken Burns, whose history of baseball was the most watched series on U.S television
ever, Burns argues that the history of a sport (or of a form of music)
can provide important insights into the human condition.
underemployment, leisure time, early retirement?)
Other quotes that argue for or suggest the need for pupils to do history in schools.
History for its own sake
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).
Quiz. Can you identify the person
behind these quotes about history?
I came across some of these quotations before I fully realised the
fundamental importance to civilisation of fully referencing all
sources. There are a few where provenance is not given. I realise this
is a bad example to set and bad practice in general, but I have left
them in nonetheless as some of them are quite interesting and would (I
think) be a loss to the collection. Do feel free to e mail me the
provenance for any missing details.
R. (1987) Interesting and useful, Teaching
History, No. 47:11-14.
M. and Adey, K. (2001) Pupil
perceptions of effective teaching and subject relevance in history and
geography at Key Stage 3, Research
in Education, Vol. 71, No. 1.
N. (2004) Pupils’ conceptions of history and history teaching, International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching and Research,
Vol. 4, No. 2.
Ofsted (2007) History in the balance: history in English schools 2003-7, London,
Ofsted. Online at: www.ofsted.gov.uk/assets/Internet_Content/Shared_Content/Files/2007/july/hstryintheblnc.pdf.
Pupil perceptions of history at Key Stage 3. Online at:
Council (1968) Schools Council,
Enquiry I, London, Schools Council.
Quotes on the purposes of
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