In Defence of History
Words: Thomas Roberts
To peer inside any booksellers’ window or to take a quick glance over the evening’s TV schedule provides clear evidence that we are fascinated by the past. With cultural interest in history so strong it seems paradoxical, or at the very least inconsistent, that the academic subject continues to face the threat of marginalisation in state education.
I’d argue history, as a stand-alone discipline, deserves to be a permanent and treasured fixture within every school’s curriculum. Not only does it enable young people to interpret the contemporary world around them, it can also serve to help protect them from many of the modern perils we as a society now face.
Compared to the rest of Europe, the English education system is unique in allowing pupils to drop history at the age of 14. For the majority of European children, history is a compulsory subject throughout secondary education. Our continental cousins place real value in the study of a subject that influences every aspect of society and helps us to make sense of the cultural and political world around us.
As every teacher knows, covering the required content for an examination syllabus while at the same time pausing to reflect on the knowledge or practice the skills that have just been acquired can prove a challenge. Current practitioners dealing with the newly introduced GCSE history specifications will no doubt testify to this as vociferously as anyone.
Despite this obvious difficulty, however, a strong case must be made for seizing every opportunity to make the study of history as relevant to the modern world as is possible. Take for example the ongoing debate over the advent of technology and the replacement of humans by robots in the workplace.
Any students studying the Industrial Revolution are presented with fine examples of the impact technological changes can have upon the lives of ordinary people. An understanding of the Luddites and the questions they raised about the ‘fraudulent and deceitful manner’ in which machinery was being used to exploit labour practices can help to inspire and inform opinions on the cautious approach we must take with our own future.
A study of boom and bust in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century offers so many direct comparisons with policies from the current White House administration. In a recent Year 10 lesson I had my students write a ‘letter of advice’ to the current president regarding policies to deregulate the economy, pull back from diplomatic cooperation and curb immigration.
The advice they gave drew in large part from their understanding of the disastrous impact such policies had in the 1920s. Such an exercise provides an opportunity for students to consolidate their knowledge and understanding of the study period while also demonstrating how useful lessons from the past can be.
Whether it’s the Industrial Revolution or Republican Party policies of the roaring twenties, it’s the job of the history teacher to make it clear how up-to-date and relevant history can be.
When talking to parents and prospective students of GCSE or A Level history, every history teacher will press home the fact history demands the development of a critical mind. Now more than ever is a time when young minds must be encouraged to employ caution when presented with news and opinion. After all, ‘fake news’ is hardly a modern phenomenon.
We are asking a lot from teenagers in differentiating fact from fiction while digesting today’s news. Through the study of history, students are taught the causes and consequences of the same event are very often interpreted in contradictory ways. Recount the fall of Saigon in 1975 and ask them to guess the source before revealing it.
Such an activity can be effective in challenging young minds to be critical rather than accepting information at face value. A student who has learned the importance of considering the motives that underpin a particular viewpoint is far less susceptible to the persuasive art of political spin or, worse still, malicious brainwashing.
While there’s no need to convince our students that every topic must be approached from the standpoint of “what does this tell us about today’s world”, I’d still argue that in a globalised and increasingly unstable world lessons from the past, combined with the development of critical thinking skills, can help equip us for a new and uncertain future. This should surely be a fundamental part of any child’s education.