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The purposes of school history

What does history contribute to social literacy? What ways of thinking, writing and questioning would be lost if we eliminated history from the curriculum?’

Gaea Lienhardt, quoted in Wineburg, S. (2001: ix) Historical Thinking and other unnatural acts, Philadelphia, Temple Press

I 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.

There 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 history.

So, 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).

Some 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. 


If 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 exploitation…   

Why is this of any interest/use to history teachers?

Because 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.

(It 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).

One 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.

For the purposes of this website, to stop the page being too long, I have divided the quotes into different categories.

1. Quotes about linking the past to the present. (Why I think these quotes are particularly important/helpful for history teachers).

2. 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 Era).

3. 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).

4. And some criticisms of this approach.

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

6. Statements about history to develop skills of critical judgement.

7.History to develop international harmony and discourage crude national stereotyping and the perpetuation of nationalistic grudges and grievances.

8. Statements about history 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).

9. Comments by recent Prime Ministers about school history.

10. Quotation about Tony Blair and History

11. What did Henry Ford say about history?

12. 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.

13. History for employability (and underemployment, leisure time, early retirement?)

14. Other quotes that argue for or suggest the need for pupils to do history in schools.

15. History for its own sake

16. 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).

17. Quiz. Can you identify the person behind these quotes about history?

Apology: 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.


Aldrich, R. (1987) Interesting and useful, Teaching History, No. 47:11-14.

Biddulph, 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.

Fink, 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.

QCA (2005) Pupil perceptions of history at Key Stage 3. Online at: http://www.qca.org.uk/qca_6391.aspx.

Schools Council (1968) Schools Council, Enquiry I, London, Schools Council.

Quotes on the purposes of school history

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