Policy Papers

Why history matters

John Tosh |

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Executive Summary

  • Active citizenship in a deliberative democracy stands in much greater need of critical historical knowledge than is generally recognised.
  • The history taught in schools under the National Curriculum is seriously deficient in this regard.
  • The historical profession pays too little attention to the role it could play in disseminating critical historical knowledge through the media; a crucial dimension of public history is thus downplayed.
  • In discounting the merits of public history, historians set aside the insights of their predecessors since the mid-19th century.
  • Public history for citizens consists of both agreed historical knowledge (as foregrounded in History & Policy) and an awareness that historical interpretation is a matter of debate and contention.


This is a book about the practical rationale of historical knowledge in contemporary Britain. To a considerable extent it was inspired - and indeed made possible - by the material which History & Policy has placed in the public domain over the past five years. In the book I make explicit the assumptions about public history in Britain which inform many of the contributions to the website. It is my hope that the book will spread awareness of the potential of applied history beyond the constituencies which currently make use of History & Policy.

I make two connected arguments. First, thinking historically has a crucial part to play in the intellectual equipment of the active, concerned citizen (an earlier draft of the book had as its sub-title the somewhat unwieldy 'resources for a critically empowered citizenry'). Second, at present this civic role is ill served by the media, by the schools, and by historians themselves. Time and again, complex policy issues are placed before the public without adequate explanation of how they have come to assume their present shape, and without any hint of the possibilities which are disclosed by the record of the past. This is not the only democratic deficit in British society at present, but it is one which attracts little serious public discussion. Reducing that deficit may, as Ludmilla Jordanova points out, involve confronting deeply held popular myths, with very uncertain prospects of success. But on many of the topics to which historical perspective can profitably be applied the problem is not the tenacity of myth but the lack of any relevant knowledge at all. Here gains in popular understanding can be made with greater confidence.

The lessons of the Iraq war

My own practice as a historian has always been informed by an awareness of the social and political purchase of historical knowledge - first as an Africanist naively aspiring to equip a new nation with part of its history, and later as a British gender historian concerned to historicize the essentialist notions of masculinity which were current in the 1980s. But the writing of this book was prompted by more recent experience.

For me the Iraq War was a wake-up call. Here was a crisis which manifestly had its roots in the past. Yet during the long lead-up to the invasion in 2003, there was almost no attempt to uncover that past in the media. Instead the British public were repeatedly told that Saddam Hussein was another Hitler - in spite of the fact that analogies which leap over both time and space are the least illuminating. Little was said about the earlier British occupation of Iraq in 1914 and the ensuing attempt to rule the country through a puppet ruler (as pointed out by Beverley Milton-Edwards). There was constant unrest in the country - met by the deployment of RAF bombers as a routine arm of the administration - until the British relinquished overall control in 1934. At the very least such a perspective would have brought sharply into focus the risk of continued insurgency and instability in post-invasion Iraq.

In public government ministers dismissed the merits of historical perspective: Tony Blair told the US Congress in July 2003, 'There has never been a time.... when, except in the most general sense, a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day'. What we have been told of Cabinet deliberations suggests an engagement with history which was only a little less superficial. Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this episode is that there was so little appetite for historical enlightenment among the public. It was as if the bearing of historical perspective on issues of urgent concern was lost on the British people, indicating a political culture in which there was less readiness than ever to draw intelligently on the past.

History and citizenship

This sombre instance of what Christopher Andrew has called the Historical Attention Span Deficit Disorder sheds some light on the second strand of recent experience which has contributed to this book: the ongoing debate about citizenship education, and the place of history in it. History's role is widely assumed to be to make political identities more than an abstraction - to give human content to 'Britishness' and the values which are held to define it. In fact this has been the dominant interpretation of citizenship since state education was launched in the 1870s. Nation, empire and social deference were the guiding principles of history teaching in Victorian and Edwardian schools (see History and national identity: why they should remain divorced by Stefan Berger). Social cohesion is now defined much more broadly to encompass multicultural identities as well as respect for one's country, and the class politics which once infused the curriculum is much less in evidence today. But recent statements by the Department for Education and Skills and its advisors point to a remarkable continuity of purpose (see the Ajegbo report of 2006, Diversity and Citizenship). History is still expected to produce better citizens by acquainting them with the 'right' past.

But is that what education for citizenship should be about? The problem with the nation-building agenda is that making political demands on the history curriculum is open to endless proliferation. It must now accommodate those multicultural identities which are rightly viewed as part of being British; it must also strike a balance between the national and the global; and schools would be failing in their social duty if the history curriculum did not also devote time to the Holocaust and the slave trade. There are sound arguments for each of these. But the end result is a history curriculum without coherence. Historians routinely condemn the 'sushi bar' of history (though the metaphor is inappropriate if it implies consumer choice). Instead of emerging from school with a sense of history as an extended progression, students learn to 'think in bubbles' (as David Reynolds has put it).

The fragmentation of history permits many political bases to be covered, but at very heavy cost. Constant switching from one topic to another means that students do not learn how to think historically. They fail to grasp how the lapse of time always places a gulf between ourselves and previous ages; to recognise instances of a process or trajectory still unfolding in the present; and to understand that any feature of the past must first be interpreted in its historical context. The absence of meaningful historical perspectives on the crisis in Iraq was thus hardly surprising (the credibility of the comparison of Saddam with Hitler was also enhanced by the heavy weight placed by post-14 History teaching on the Third Reich).

This failure is sometimes condoned on the grounds that the history taught in schools cannot be expected to equip students with all the background they will need for every political eventuality. It would indeed be absurd to criticize schools in the 1980s and 1990s for not having taught the history of Iraq. That would be to misunderstand the social role of history. The fault of the education system lies, not in having omitted to teach the history of Iraq, but in having failed to convey the essentials of historical thinking which are applicable to Iraq - and to any number of subjects whose topicality will only become apparent as the future unfolds. This is an argument which has particular relevance to public understanding of international affairs, since the next flash-point of global concern is proverbially hard to predict.

A hundred years of history for citizens

Citizenship enjoys an exceptionally high profile in political discourse at present. The reflective, active citizen, weighing up merits of competing policies and alternative understandings is the central player in deliberative democracy. My argument is that, in the long-term, enhancing the capacity for informed debate counts for more than addressing the political preoccupations of the moment. If that is so, the dominant modes of teaching history in schools are on the wrong track. The National Curriculum in history should be reviewed. Its contribution to citizenship remains central, but it needs to be defined in a way which respects the genuine contribution that historical understanding can make to informed public debate.

In the present climate such a programme would be innovatory, but it is not without precedent. Ever since the beginning of state education historians have canvassed alternative visions of a civic history. In 1867 - a few months before the franchise was extended to include a proportion of working class men - William Stubbs delivered his inaugural lecture as Regius Professor at Oxford University. He outlined his approach to the teaching of history in these terms:

The stock of information accumulated is only secondary in importance to the habits of judgement formed by the study of it. For we want to train not merely students, but citizens...... to be fitted not for criticism or for authority in matters of memory, but for action.

Ten years later, following the establishment of state elementary education, Stubbs spelt out the democratic implications:

If the study of history can really be made an educational implement in schools, it will raise up a generation who not only know how to vote, but will bring a judgement, prepared, trained and in its own sphere exercised and developed, to help them in all the great affairs of life.

What is striking about this passage is that Stubbs did not echo the standard justification for history-teaching in schools, that it would instil patriotism and deference. Instead he emphasised the power of judgement acquired through the study of history. The value of history lay not in the detailed knowledge of particular periods or problems, but in a distinctive cast of mind - a standard of judgement which might be exercised on any subject. What Stubbs prescribed for the school pupil was in this respect identical with what he recommended to his Oxford students. Other leading historians agreed with him. When the Historical Association was founded in 1906, A.F. Pollard declared that its journal, History, would 'bring the light of history to bear in the study of politics.... to test modern experiment by historical experience.' In 1913 G.M. Trevelyan - then a progressive Liberal - declared that the educational role of history was 'to train the mind of the citizen into a state in which he is capable of taking a just view of political problems.'

At a time when the citizenship agenda is still in flux, it is worth being reminded of these debates. Pollard's remark about testing modern experiment by historical experience would not be out of place in the introduction to a remodelled National Curriculum.

The role of historians

In Why History Matters the schools do not carry the entire burden of my critique. The media have a crucial part to play in placing current affairs in historical perspective. But to perform that role effectively they depend on a historical profession which is alert to the topicality of its scholarship and prepared to reach out beyond a largely captive audience of fellow-academics and students.

Few historians would deny that their subject holds the answers as to how we came to be where we are, but far fewer give serious thought to how this knowledge can be disseminated. Despite the popularising efforts of a small proportion of scholars, there remains a yawning gap between the academic output of historians and the reading matter of the educated public. There is still the feeling that 'going public' is not for scholars. Part of the explanation is that the priorities of scholars are over-determined by the current research regime: books written for a general audience mean less time for meeting the pressing requirements of the Research Assessment Exercise. But the objection runs deeper than that.

Some scholars worry that their less scrupulous colleagues will play to the gallery and bend their interpretation to the prevailing prejudices. This is a residue of the shock experienced by the older generation at the prostitution of historical scholarship in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, which gave rise to the belief that any admission of relevance is the thin end of the totalitarian wedge.

At root, however, it is anxieties about professional standing which account for most of this hostility to public history. Historical scholarship is both more technical and more theoretical than it was even twenty years ago. Abstruse analysis accompanied by lengthy foot-notes marks out the serious professional and is entirely inappropriate for a lay audience. Above all, the practicalities of popularisation would seem to eliminate the debates and controversies which are meat and drink to historians. How can they confidently communicate 'relevant' history to the public when so much of the content rests on a quicksand of contested interpretation (a point made by Ludmilla Jordanova)?

Where historians position themselves in this debate depends on how highly they value public history. Writing for one's peers and writing for a non-specialist readership are two different registers. Addressing the public - whether through the printed word or broadcasting - undeniably involves a dilution of standards. The scaffolding of scholarship is pared down to a minimum. Documentation and analysis are less rigorous. On the other hand plurality of interpretation is less of an obstacle than it might seem. Few things would make for a more mature understanding of current affairs than an awareness that the relevant historical perspectives are themselves the subject of debate - particularly if those controversies bear on the present. It then becomes possible to think outside the box - to challenge the spurious authority of single-track thinking - for example Margaret Thatcher's slogan TINA ('there is no alternative'). Indeed it is precisely this plurality of interpretation which provides the best defence against the danger of history being enlisted in the cause of propaganda (of a totalitarian or any other kind). As Joyce Appleby, Margaret Jacob and Lynn Hunt have shown, the clash of historical perspectives is one route to a 'revitalised public.'

Important though a sense of controversy is to public discourse, a great deal of historical knowledge rests on firm foundations (notwithstanding the scepticism of some Postmodernists). An important service is performed in restoring to public memory events and trends from the past which are beyond contention. In such cases the anxiety expressed by John Arnold about the partisanship of politically focused history is misplaced. Thus to return to the case of Iraq, there is still debate over the motives of the British occupation in 1914 and the depth of the indigenous resistance, but there is no disputing that the occupation and the resistance took place. In 2003 even to know this much was grounds enough for taking seriously the possibility of political failure in a post-Saddam Iraq.

History & Policy

This is the context in which History & Policy has proved its value over the past five years. From the perspective of public history the real potential of the website lies not so much in influencing government and think tanks, as in providing material for the media and thus raising the level of public historical awareness. In 2003 that was true only to a limited extent. Even though they engaged very directly with the post-invasion prospects of Iraq, the articles by Beverley Milton Edwards and John W. Dower received little notice. But the much higher profile of the website now suggests that comparable contributions today would make a significant impact. Particularly encouraging is the rising proportion of unsolicited contributions written by young scholars who recognise the obligation to disseminate findings of topical importance.

Historians have long been expected to instil good citizenship in others. But what is the appropriate role of the citizen-scholar? For historians themselves, good citizenship consists in contributing their expertise to the national conversation: exposing politically slanted myth, placing our concerns in more extended narratives, testing the limits of analogy, and above all showing how familiarity with the past can open the door to a broader sense of the possibilities in the present. That should be our contribution to a 'revitalised public'.


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