History: What is its knowledge?

Thanks to Michael Fordham for his help with this one.

Here’s where I placed history:

Axes (2) - History

Substantive Knowledge

It’s knowledge of the past.  It’s knowing that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066.  It’s knowing where it took place, who it was fought between, why, what events led up to it previously, what the consequences of it were following on from it.  It’s interpreting the past through the minds and actions of ‘Great Women’ and ‘Great Men,’ or through the perspective of ‘the little people,’ or through the lens of the ‘Great -isms’ – Nationalism, Communism, Capitalism, Marxism, Romanticism, Modernism and so forth.

It might also be appropriate to place certain conceptual ideas here as well, such as chronology or causation.

Disciplinary Knowledge

How on Earth do we have any idea about what happened a thousand years ago!?  Once again, it is the work that historians do to amass this knowledge and even define our uncertainty in its veracity; and I’m not even sure where to begin with this one.

Is it source analysis; inferring from sources, considering their provenance and bias, synthesising  an analysis of what happened from many sources combined?  Maybe… but Fordham’s gone so far as to suggest that ‘source analysis’ might not even be a useful way of thinking about what historians do – the manner of amassing knowledge and theory about the past being so different for a medievalist compared with a modern historian, for example.  Can we really consider the work of archaeologists to fall under this watery picture of ‘source analysis’ that we convey in schools?

And of course, none of that substantive knowledge is actually true, right?  To teach it as such would be intellectually dishonest.

I’ve just finished listening to 80 hours of lectures on the history of Rome, by Mike Duncan.  Before I started I knew little beyond what I’d picked up from HBO’s Rome, Starz’ Spartacus, and a couple of Shakespeare plays.  He tells a story, a very long one, from beginning to end.  It is incredible, and I’m truly grateful to him for putting in the five years it took to tell this story!  He’s also been very good throughout at cautioning over the level of faith we can place in various stories (from definitely pure myth, to pretty confident this is what happened.)  He talks about why those uncertainties creep in and vary across time, as well as noting alternative theories where appropriate.

Off the back of this I’ve jumped into Mary Beard’s hyper-publicised (if you live in London) book SPQR.  I’ve been frustrated by the amount of prior knowledge Beard assumes – if I hadn’t listened to Duncan, her book would be utterly impenetrable.  This would be fine, incidentally, if not for all of the marketing suggesting that this is an accessible read for the layperson; she’s no story-teller.  A hundred pages in and I’m getting a feel for what Beard is trying to do, though, and along the way I’m learning just how super-cautious she is being with every interpretation; she is just on another level.  Nothing is certain, nothing is known, everything is a mystery with tantalising possibilities but no real knowledge.  Is this the interpretation of history that has crept into our schools…?

Between them, who has taught me more about the past?  Duncan, no doubt, yet he did it while maintaining the important idea that there are limits to our knowledge of the past – he told a story while making it clear that sometimes it was just a story.  But as a result, I now ‘know’ something, and I know enough to meet Beard’s analysis and engage with it.  If not for Duncan, Beard’s overly analytic and pondersome musings would have been impenetrable.  I want to know about the past – I’ll worry about its complexities later, if I need to.

Why there on the axes?

It has the pride of place as the most northward on the axes, the most focussed on trying to communicate the disciplinary knowledge of the discipline.  There’s also very little in the way of substantive knowledge going on there.  This will certainly strike some people as being off the mark – history teachers often state that they of course teach lots of knowledge of the past!  And indeed they do… sort of.  Walk into KS3 history classes and you might see pupils learning something about the Tudors, or the Spanish Armada.  Walk into Ks4 and you’ll see lots of knowledge being conveyed pertaining to the World Wars and the Cold War.  You might even see sections of lessons being dedicated to knowledge recall/recaps/revision.  But… here’s the bigger picture:

Kids learn something about ancient and classical civilisations in primary school, simple ideas like ‘what every day life was like,’ what they would eat, how they would dress, what their buildings looked like, and so forth.  Pupils then transition to secondary school and these great civilisations and all the complex philosophical, political, mathematical and artistic ideas that they contributed to modern life are then never touched on, and never again mentioned.

KS3 then takes one of two paths.  In one path pupils will study a little something about early English history perhaps.  They’ll have one or two hours a week, and much of that time will be invested in trying to teach children to ‘write like a historian’ or ‘think like a historian,’ rather than sticking to a simple narrative appropriate for the young mind.  As each unit is covered, it is then forgotten – it is not formally assessed or mentioned again, albeit a more experienced history teacher will likely make links between what was studied before and what is being studied now, where possible.

The other KS3 path is an extreme example of the worst-case scenario: the headteacher has forgotten their responsibility to educate, either through listening to the siren-song of some consultant, or through crippling fear of Ofsted, or a mixture of both, and has now decreed that the KS4 exam topics will be studied throughout all five years of the school, thus maximising the chances of exam success.  Pupils are robbed of their right to an education in history.

Finally, as we step into KS4, the primary school knowledge of the ancients is far from everyone’s minds, and the recent topics of KS3 are now quickly forgotten.  New topics do come in, and yes, new knowledge is conveyed, but it’s all subservient to a set of ‘historical skills.’  Children learn about the Wars only so that they can demonstrate their ability to analyse sources, or infer from sources, or their mastery of some of the historical concepts I mentioned.  Certainly, some accurate recall of some of the knowledge pertaining to the period will be essential, but what about everything that went before in 9 years of education prior to KS4?

Undoubtedly then, while there is some substantive knowledge still being conveyed in history lessons, it is the pale background spectre to the glorious front-and-centre hero of abstract, ‘transferable’ skill.

The strange death of history teaching… ?

The study of history is amongst the most important studies in our education system.  It allows us to understand where we come from, and locate ourselves in time.  It allows us to see the mistakes we made repeatedly in the past, and hope to avoid them in the future.  It explains the origins of aspects of society that today we might dislike, such as anti-Semitism and racism, and therefore empowers us to do more to change it – it’s one thing to think ‘being mean is wrong,’ it’s quite another to understand the long historical persecution of the Jews, or our uncomfortable historical relationship with slavery that still leaves its mark on modern Western societies in varying degrees.  It explains the origins of institutions we today take for granted, such as marriage, and enables us to enter into debate about why and where we should treasure them, and where we should perhaps seek to modify them, in an informed manner.  It shows us how people thousands of years ago were almost identical to us, just living in different technological and socio-political structures.  It imbues us with gratitude for all we have today – where civilisations went to war for spices, we can pop down the road and pick up a bottle of pepper for under a pound (or just kick back and order it online.)  We live today in a curious climate of fear… during the least violent period in all of history!

Knowledge of the past is the lens through which we are able to understand contemporary human society.  Absent that knowledge, we don’t get it – we see only what’s in front of us, and are resigned to shout loudly our shallow, ineffectual opinions, while we are ignored and dominated by those who do get it, who do know where we’ve come from, and who are able to articulate a vision of where we should go next – a vision the rest of us can little understand, and can little consider the extent to which we agree with it.  We are at the mercy of their media machines and PR campaigns that will – incidentally as they have always done – rewrite history to sell the masses on their vision.

A subject cast into the Z-List status of 1-2 hours a week. A subject whose study is optional from the age of 14.  A subject whose substantive knowledge is no longer treated with reverence or respect.  A subject that historically, and I mean, stretching back into antiquity, was considered to be of the greatest importance.  A subject whose knowledge should inoculate us from parts of political spin, imbue us with a wariness of, pride in and gratitude for our past; give us a sense of our place in time, and of how we might contribute to the future.

Are we witnessing the strange death of history teaching… ?



About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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