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Policy Papers

Historical content matters: a response to the critical thinking skills agenda

Katie Barclay |

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Executive Summary

  • Historical knowledge is a significant form of ‘common sense’ knowledge that shapes decision-making
  • Academic histories play a key role in shaping this ‘common sense’ knowledge
  • As a result, academic historical scholarship plays a significant and undervalued role in producing social, economic and political outcomes in all areas
  • Universities, policymakers and society should take greater heed of historical research as vital to the healthy functioning of societies, economies and polities
  • The value of history degrees is not just an important skillset in critical thinking, but the historical content that it provides students


History is regularly deployed by people from all walks of life for all sorts of purposes. Pro-Brexit campaigners have variously called upon Britain’s imperial heritage or nostalgic imaginings of whiter British past to justify their retreat from the European Union. Remainers have responded with their own histories of Empire and migration. Both sides have wielded experts in universities to support their points, or posed with historical writings in piles behind them as they make political arguments. The Christchurch shooter carved the dates of Crusade battles into his weapon, locating his action – he claimed – in a long history of Christian-Muslim conflict. Recent debates around sex education in schools have deployed arguments about ‘traditional’ family structures, that LGBT families are meant to sit outside. More benignly, journalists and the public display surprise when they encounter academic scholarship that sheds light on contemporary issues, claiming these ‘hidden’ histories have been withheld from them. It is a degree of surprise, sometimes outrage, that is suggestive that the public recognise that history does important work in shaping how we feel about the world, and that gaps in knowledge are somehow unjust or designed to deceive the public.

For all these people, history matters. And it matters to historians that the public has access to the best and most cutting-edge histories to help inform these discussions. One of the key purposes of History & Policy is to direct the knowledge and findings produced by historians towards those addressing similar problems in the present. Historians, deeply appreciative of the importance of context, are loathe to suggest that ‘lessons from the past’ can be directly applied to a new set of circumstances. But equally we argue that understanding the past can help people make better decisions when encountering similar circumstances today. It can be particularly useful for highlighting how a specific problem has arisen, and for offering an appreciation of the scope of an impact of a choice and the variety of dimensions that need to be considered. Thus, for example, research on children and institutions illuminates why institutions have repeatedly failed many of the children that have been brought into them and why these same problems continue into the present. Historical knowledge, however, is also significant because it shapes our understanding of who we are, our identities, and our potential as people. It is important not just where it can be directly applied but as a source of general information that informs how we engage with the world. That it plays this role ensures that we should not only consider historical research and teaching critical when it has an instrumental and applied value but also because of its role in producing people, inclusive democracies, and nations.

Histories and the everyday

Historical knowledge is all around us. It is transmitted through families, fact and fiction books, television, museums and heritage sites, in language, and as ‘common sense’ information that we use to make decisions. Our first encounters with the past are often in the stories told about own ancestors – parents and grandparents – designed to help us understand what is valued in our family or how our childhood experience might have differed in a previous era. These stories offer a set of common sense information that help us locate our own experiences in relation to time and place, to significant events, and to other people. They can be incredibly varied, ranging across histories of childhood, school, workplaces and occupations, political parties and geopolitics, climate and environment, arts and culture, love and friendship, science, medicine and technology to name a few. As we age and encounter other histories, perhaps at school or in books, our knowledge of the world expands and we learn both about diversity and how historical events have differential impacts on groups.

As the histories that help us make sense of our experiences, these accounts become central to how we understand our personal identity, that of others, and our role in the nation. Given our investments in our identity and attachments to our pasts, these stories also ensure that history becomes politically significant in the public sphere. That the public intuitively recognises this can be seen in the debates, protests and highly emotive engagements with public statues associated with controversial figures, such as the imperialist Cecil Rhodes or US confederate leader Robert E. Lee, or in museum displays associated with local conflicts, such as The Troubles in Northern Ireland or Aboriginal-settler conflict in Australia. What is represented in public histories becomes central to debates about who we are, who is included and excluded, who holds power, and the production of contemporary values and rights.

These ‘everyday histories’ are related to academic scholarship in important ways. The popular histories that are taught at school and museums and appear on television, in children’s books, even fiction, typically draw on academic research. If they are sometimes less rigorous or flatten complex arguments, they nonetheless draw on a body of research conducted by professional historians. Increasingly academics also produce public-facing historical writing to aid with this process. The histories that shape identities grow from academic scholarship. Historians play a significant role in determining what is important to remember. A move from histories of monarchs and diplomacy to that of women and workers may have been encouraged by grassroots civil rights movements in the middle of the twentieth century, but it was historians who determined the key features of the new social histories that emerged.

Historical research is often considered an art because the historian plays such a key role in shaping their accounts of the past. It is the questions that they consider to be important that determine what they look for in the archive. It is their sifting and selection from often sizeable collections of material that determine what makes it into history books and what is forgotten. It is these choices, and that others might make different choices, that produce historical debate and argument, and which informs the evolution of the field as a new generation of scholars bring a different set of concerns to the material that survives from the past. Thus the knowledges that we grow up with and that shape our understanding of ourselves and identities reflect the trends and critical questions within the historical discipline in our formative years. It is perhaps natural then that new histories produced by a new generation of scholars can be challenging to those whose identities were shaped by older understandings of the past, just as those same histories have been liberating for many – such as women, the LGBT community, or ethnic minorities – who lacked stories of people like them when they were growing up. Yet this evolution is critical in producing history that remains relevant to our contemporary experience and identity-making, and to answering questions raised by new circumstances and contexts.

Research and teaching history

In recent years, the value of historical research, and indeed humanities research in general, has been questioned. Right-wing commentators have suggested that universities are increasingly driven by ‘identity politics’. Critics fear that the history curriculum has fragmented into a wide range of modules driven by the politics of their teachers. Others have questioned the value of research that is not seen to hold a direct and measurable social, but especially economic, impact. This has become particularly significant for the student market where degrees are increasingly promoted with claims of a direct and obvious employment route. Both criticisms demand a straightforward account of what a history degree teaches, and a single type of job that those with history degrees take up. Without this, critics argue, history is useless knowledge. Universities have sought to counter such claims by locating the value of history not in historical knowledge – the content of what was learned – but in ‘critical thinking’, ‘writing and communication’ and similar important but generic skills. For such commentators, the historical content is of less significance than the opportunity to read widely, think deeply, research, and solve problems, a skillset that can be applied in any context.

No one would contest that a history degree offers these benefits, but it is an account that fails to recognise the importance of historical knowledge in the everyday. The histories we use are significant in interpreting everyday experiences and identity. Indeed, critical thinking requires historical knowledge. What we determine to be ‘common sense’, how we understand the world to operate, does not arise naturally but is based upon the everyday histories that we are taught in childhood and across our lives. This is the case when we, for example, make an assumption about normative family forms in the past, or when we draw on an interpretation of the causes of the First World War when producing foreign policy. Such ‘common sense’ histories are always partial, reflective of our experience and our encounters with the historical knowledge available to us. Access to a broader, more sophisticated body of historical research counters these ‘common sense’ accounts by offering a firmer grounding for decision-making and critical analysis. This can be seen in the now famous example of the US Supreme Court decision for marriage equality, that referenced the scholarship of key marriage and sexuality historians, and transformed the legal rights of LGBT individuals across the US.

New histories are therefore important for the work they do in shaping individuals and society. A democratic society – one where all members of the polity have a place – requires inclusive accounts that acknowledge and recognise all parts of the community. This is even more critical for groups who have been subject to disadvantage, harm or exploitation, where their histories act as an acknowledgement and first step in redress for past wrongs. It is vital for minorities who need histories of others like them to explain their experience and role in the world. New histories are also important in giving us accounts of art, culture, science, technology, business, economy and more that help us interpret the present, much as History & Policy promotes. Importantly, for a rich account of the past to emerge, a variety of topics and perspectives becomes critical.

In the present moment, a popular television show such as Downton Abbey, exploring changing social relations in early twentieth-century Britain, can draw on histories of war, economy, society, fashion, popular culture, material culture, accent and language use, technology, medicine and more, in its rich ‘world-building’. This is possible due to the work of dozens of scholars and years of effort, which itself builds upon generations of earlier work, though this work is usually unacknowledged within television credits. Such a history is richer, more interesting, perhaps a fuller capture of the past. Its strength lies in collaboration and the representation of a diversity of perspectives. With significant viewing figures both in the UK and internationally, Downton Abbey is an account of the past that will inform how many of us interpret our present experiences. Yet it is an account that is not usually acknowledged as either ‘history’ that people will use in making sense of themselves, nor as rooted in academic historical research – despite it being both. Remarkably, despite the fact that governments and increasingly university campaigns targeting students have sought to instrumentalise historical knowledge by emphasising its benefits for public policy, for productivity and growth, and for future employment, the important and everyday impacts of history – the ways that it is used by ordinary people in their own lives – is rarely considered as a domain shaped by historical research.

For an informed and productive society, the historical knowledge disseminated to the public must be broad, diverse and evolving to reflect new research. Universities are a key space where new accounts of the past can be taught and disseminated. That there is not a core history curriculum taught at every university, as some conservatives suggest there should be, is not a flaw, but a feature. It is not possible for every member of society, nor every historian, to know everything about the past. History courses thus specialise, and disseminate diverse accounts of the past. As history students from different institutions spread outwards, taking their specialist knowledges to an array of workplaces nationally and internationally, they share their educations with others, increasing the opportunity for knowledge to reach those that will find it most useful. Acknowledging the significance of the historical content of degrees may also offer opportunities for individuals to be targeted by employers or communities for historical learning that gives them expertise and critical thinking in specific areas.

Importantly, this is not an account of historical knowledge that attends only to the modern histories that explain the immediate experiences of those in the polity. Historical knowledges have long legacies in culture and society, requiring investment and dissemination in histories both deep and wide. This can be seen most recently in the use of crusading history both by the Christchurch shooter and by conservative political parties in Australia (where Senator Cori Bernardi recently tabled a motion asking the Senate to note the anniversary of the breaking of the siege of Vienna in 1529), to promote a right-wing agenda. But it can also be seen in our contemporary understanding of love and sex that was first forged in conflicts within the medieval church. Knowing this – like our more well-known modern histories of sex and gender – may well open up new ways of thinking about something so central to our everyday lives. A successful and inclusive democratic state requires not just research skills, but historical knowledge.


Historical knowledge shapes how people interpret their experiences, and those of others. It aids critical thinking and decision-making. Providing people with richer, more sophisticated, and up to date historical content therefore contributes not only to a better educated public but one that can make better decisions in a vast array of areas of life. Acknowledging this requires a move from promoting history degrees for their generic critical thinking and communication skillset to celebrating historical knowledge as a key form of information required by productive members of society. This has implications for how universities promote their history research and teaching, but also for policymakers as they seek to produce the best outcomes in areas as diverse as education, health, industry, politics, economy, technology, arts, and society.

Further Reading

Anna Green, ‘Intergenerational Family Stories: Private, Parochial, Pathological?,’ Journal of Family History 38, no. 4 (2013): 387-402

Shurlee Swain and Nell Musgrove, ‘We are the Stories We Tell About Ourselves: Child Welfare Records and the Construction of Identity among Australians who, as Children, Experienced Out-of-Home “Care”,’ Archives and Manuscripts 40, no. 1 (2012): 4-14

Penny Summerfield, ‘Culture and Composure: Creating Narratives of the Gendered Self in Oral History Interviews,’ Cultural and Social History 1 (2004): 65-93

Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

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