Wednesday, 5 June 2013

What is the point of studying history?

One of the pleasures (no; I really mean it) of running a history department was that from time to time student teachers would arrive on “placement.” A few of them, especially in the first term of the course, had to learn almost everything – even the importance of punctuality and of speaking audibly. Most of them were really good from the word go.

However, one thing that I found alarming in recent years was the fact that their course did not include any philosophy of education, nor any philosophy of history. My own training, at the Institute of Education, London, was weak on class-room management (virtually non-existent as a matter of fact). It was weak on psychology, too. At the first seminar our tutor said “I’m really a sociologist”, and for the third and subsequent sessions he never turned up. Still, it was a long time ago, and we hope it isn’t true (as I used to tell junior pupils about the nastier events of the Middle Ages).

But our course was very strong indeed on philosophy. One of my three long coursework essays was on the theory of education in Plato’s “Republic”; and I am sure more hours were spent on philosophy than on anything else. The practical stuff one picked up (or failed to pick up) on placements in schools. I wish we had done more psychology, but the philosophy stood me in good stead through my career and, I think, became increasingly valuable as time passed.

In particular the philosophy gave me confidence that what I was doing was worth while. Some subjects have an obvious practical value that can sustain the weary teacher’s morale during the bad times. The value of History as a subject, however, is not immediately obvious (and some educators, parents and pupils still do not acknowledge it). Some of those student teachers who joined my department looked blank when I asked them what was the point of teaching history, and I can’t help wondering whether they will be able to sustain a career to the end, or will they end up disillusioned and emotionally withered, like Crocker Harris in “The Browning Version”.

My own ideas on the whole grew and were refined during my career, so that I could argue with conviction when rivals wanted to steal bits of my timetabled time and explain ( sometimes possibly a bit too forcefully) to head teachers that merely persuading our pupils to learn more facts off a longer list would not improve the department. I can also look back on forty years and think that not all of the time was wasted.

Our youngest pupils were Primary 7 – ten or eleven. With them, on the very first day, I would say two things. The first was “In this room we aim to improve three things: reading, writing and thinking. Does anyone want to argue that those are not worth coming to school to do? We shall do all sorts of things – some of them you might even enjoy – but at any time you can challenge me and I’ll be able to tell you whether we are developing reading, writing, thinking or maybe more than one of those things at once.” I never had any more complaints of the “What’s the point of doing this” sort.

The second thing I would say was “Now, who are the good games players? Anyone play a musical instrument?” (There were always some). “Now, tell the rest of us, how do you get better at goal kicking/playing the flute/skate-boarding?” Someone would always say “Practice.” “Exactly,” I would reply. "So we shall do lots of practice at reading, writing and thinking and I can promise you that by the end of the year you will be a bit better at all three.”

Oddly enough, I was speaking the absolute truth to these children. “Thinking”, of course, included memory work, problem solving, planning, critical thinking, historical imagination and so on.

Meanwhile, some time in the early 1990s, our subject was under fire Some educators wanted it to go the way of Latin – a niche for eccentrics – while “Citizenship” or “Social Science” or “Humanities” became the norm. At the moment in Scotland we seem to have weathered that storm. I am told that History is currently the third most popular subject at Higher (16+) level, after English and Maths. But the crisis led me to get my ideas about the value of the subject down on one side of paper, in a form that could be handed to school management, school governors, parents, prospective pupils, student teachers and anyone else who cast doubts on our work. I still have a copy of it, so here it is. I hope fellow professionals agree, and the rest of you learn a bit about what we are trying to do.


Interest and Entertainment: In History we meet characters more extraordinary and varied than Shakespeare dared to invent, and tales of wonder and heroism that neither Hans Anderson nor J.K.Rowling could better. There is romance, adventure, intrigue and beauty. There are issues as subtle and complex as any that are dreamed of in our philosophy and devices beyond the wit of Heath Robinson. We deal with town and country, home and abroad, local and national, the spiritual and the material.

Useful skills:
-         The efficient use of libraries, indexes, catalogues and computers
-         The ability to use the Internet for research
-         Training in evaluation and selective judgement
-         The ability to synthesise many books and sources into one coherent account
-         The ability to present results clearly in prose and in graphic form, using a computer where appropriate
-         The ability to construct a logical argument and to solve a problem with detailed evaluation

Scepticism: The world is full of people who want us to believe what they say. Politicians, journalists and advertisers are obvious examples. In general we should be cautious of all those in authority, of the rich and the powerful – and, of course, of historians themselves. In order to be free in the modern world one must keep exercising ones mind in freedom, testing the pronouncements and the judgments of others. History gives training in the scepticism needed to remain free in the modern world.

Development as an individual: Theodore Zeldin once wrote that “history is autobiography”. In other words, as one learns about other people one learns about oneself. As we study History we learn about the human race, we learn what it means to be a human being, we learn what our place is as human beings in the scale of human history, we learn what human beings are capable of. We also learn to put ourselves – twenty-first century Edinburgh prosperous middle classes – in perspective. We realise that there have been intelligent, honest and good people in other ages who have not shared our prejudices, our attitudes, our ideas. So History teaches tolerance, flexibility, openness and awareness. To study History is to become a more complete human being.

1 comment:

  1. The power of history is as you say George is humanises us - it requires us to critically consider the past, its influence on the present and the possible, preferable and probable futures. It forces us to consider what happened, why, to what effect and to consider varying (and competing?)perspectives - it asks us to consider core sociological concepts such as cause and effect, and change and continuity... thanks for this George - a good thinking point - Catherine Hart