What sort of school history do we need for the twenty-first century?

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'Why do all regimes make their young study some history in school? Not to understand society and how it changes, but to approve of it, to be proud of it, to be or become good citizens.' (Hobsbawn, 1997).
This quotation from the historian Eric Hobsbawn raises the question about what it means ‘to be a good citizen’ in the 21st century. In many countries, history in schools has traditionally been focused on the development of national identity and the cultivation of loyalty to the state. More recently, this has been couched in the language of using school history to promote social cohesion and harmony. In the words of the British Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove (2012), ‘There is no better way of building a modern, inclusive, patriotism than by teaching all British citizens to take pride in this country’s historic achievements. Which is why the next Conservative Government will ensure the curriculum teaches the proper narrative of British History - so that every Briton can take pride in this nation.’
However, there are other conceptions of school history, and this paper argues that in the light of the challenges and problems facing humanity in the 21st century, other models of school history may be more helpful for the welfare of the planet and for the health and vitality of democratic societies.
The Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness points out that one of the important aims of school history is to help learners to understand the ethical dimensions of studying the past. This includes consideration of questions such as our obligation to remember aspects of the past, debates about nations’ responsibilities for acknowledging and/or apologising for past mistakes and misdeeds, the complexities involved in making ethical and moral judgements about the past, and the dangers of imposing present day standards on the people of the past (http://historicalthinking.ca/).
This paper argues that in addition to these considerations, there is another ethical dimension of studying the past which is sometimes neglected in school history: the importance of ‘veracity’ in making historical judgements. This might be defined as developing in learners the disposition of respect for evidence, open-mindedness, and awareness of the need to appreciate and acknowledge the appropriate knowledge warrant for historical (and present day) claims which are made.
Scrutiny of curriculum documentation relating to the teaching of history in schools in England reveals limited attention to the issue of veracity in historical enquiry. The importance of respect for evidence and ‘truth’ has received only occasional mention in discourse about history education (see, for example, Joseph, 1984, Ofsted, 2005).
Given the ‘diversity and unevenness of the history which is now publicly available’ (Tosh, 2008: 136), and the sophistication with which information can be manipulated in modern societies, the neglect of the need for the teaching of history ‘to take place in a spirit which takes seriously the need to pursue truth on the basis of evidence’ (Joseph, 1984:12), would appear to limit the ways in which the study of history in schools might contribute to the public good. The paper considers the implications of this neglected facet of school history and suggests ways in which history curricula might give appropriate consideration to the concept of veracity.
Gove, M. Quoted online at http://www.matthewtaylorsblog.com/public-policy/michael-goves-response/, 2010 (accessed 31 August 2012).
Hobsbawn, E. (1997) 'To see the future, look at the past', The Guardian, 7 June 1997.
Joseph, K. (1984) ‘Why teach history in schools?’, The Historian, No. 2: 10-12.
Ofsted (2005) Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, London, Ofsted.
Tosh, J. (2008) Why history matters, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages19
Publication statusUnpublished - 2014
Event'History Education and Modernity': 2014 East Asia-Europe History Education International Conference - Seoul National University, Seoul, South Korea
Duration: 20 Aug 201421 Aug 2014


Conference'History Education and Modernity': 2014 East Asia-Europe History Education International Conference
Country/TerritorySouth Korea


  • history education

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