What is history?

I read this recent article by Richard McFahn with interest as it touches on an issue I’ve been grappling with and trying to find a convincing answer to. What is history? What is our purpose when we teach history to our children at school? I have already attempted to discuss this in a previous post, where I looked at the changes in the history curriculum in the past 30 years or so since I was at school. Here’s the conclusion I reached in that post:

So what is it that we are trying to achieve by teaching history? Here’s my personal take. I think our students need to learn about the critical events and developments of the past that have laid the foundations for where we are standing now. Why is our country and the rest of the world the way it is? How did we get to where we are now? Why is society organised the way it is? To understand our present we need to find out about our shared past.

In this post, I would like to expand a little bit more on this idea, referencing the points made in McFahn’s article. According to that article, there are three possible approaches to teaching history (these are taken from Beyond the Cannon: History in the 21st Century by Peter Seixas).

  1. The collective memory approach: teach one agreed narrative, possibly through a core textbook.
  2. The disciplinary approach: teach pupils to critique different accounts of the past and assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of each interpretation.
  3. The postmodern approach: the disciplinary approach enhanced by an understanding of how political/ideological/religious or cultural context can influence interpretations of history.

The article argues for that third approach, illustrating its power through the teaching of the two contrasting interpretations of Police Battalion 101 put forward by Browning and Goldhagen. In this approach then, the focus is on analysing different interpretations of history and then to critique them through the prism of cultural or ideological influences of the time.

My main problem with this approach is that it inevitably leans more towards the disciplinary than the substantive, focusing predominantly on weighing up different interpretations rather than on the actual historical events and their significance to us. It also becomes an exercise in history of historical interpretations, turning the subject into a more abstract discipline.

I would argue for a different approach which would embrace the substantive without it becoming a mindless learning of lists or a prejudiced narrative. Our pupils need to learn the events as best we know them. There is more or less consensus, for example, that the Battle of Hastings was fought on 14th October 1066, that Harold was killed in the battle and that William emerged victorious. These events can be taught in a narrative fashion. But there is no consensus on how Harold was killed. Was it an arrow in the eye or was he hacked to death? There are also questions about why William won the battle and what was the deciding factor. Here, we can put before our pupils the different pieces of evidence and allow them to construct an argument for themselves. For at the end of the day, this is what I believe history is: constructing an argument about the past.

Naturally, the more the pupils know, the more sophisticated their arguments will be. In due course, this knowledge will reference arguments put forward by other historians, as we build our knowledge upon the work that others have done before us. What it must not become however, is a critique of other historians without putting forward one’s own argument.

Going back to my previous blog post, I wrote then that our main concern when teaching history should be to find out about our shared past in order to better understand our present. This might seem a simplistic viewpoint, but if the process of finding out about our past involves the construction of plausible arguments then this is actually an intellectually rigorous exercise. Moreover, the process of building credible arguments allows our pupils to better critique interpretations put forward by others, thus achieving in a more organic way the very same objectives of the postmodern approach.

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  1. Warren Valentine

    Interesting thoughts. I’d first of all make the case that history teachers rarely plump for one of the three aims above singularly. Instead, teaching is a curious mix of all three; you’ll see a lot of complaint, for example, that history teachers have excessively focussed on the discipline at the expense of the substantive but this isn’t a credible critique.
    What you might find interesting to read next is something like Shemilt’s work on historical frameworks, or Jonathan Howson, Peter Lee etc. on ‘Usable Historical Pasts’. They argue for teaching a large overview of the past, and then drop Rusen’s model of historical consciousness into the discussion, so students can see how historians have chosen what to study and how that interacts with present society.

    1. historylover

      Thank you, I will look for them.

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