• The Puposes of School History (3) – For its Own Sake

    by  • February 17, 2006 • Uncategorized • 5 Comments


    One of the most crystalline of all the purposes of school history is that of “for its own sake”. History for its own sake calls up a vision, or spectre, of a monkish student combing through an archive, or navigating piles of books, absorbed, transcended by the study of history. In school this implies a respect, perhaps even reverence for the past. There is no utility to school history under this aim, in fact calls for utility or relevance would mean that we were no longer studying history for its’ own sake, other concerns would have impinged upon it.

    Lee (1992:22) states that

    “the claim that history should be studied for its own sake is, then, a way of making two assertions: that history is not useful as a means to an end, but valuable as something which expands our own picture of what ends may be possible; and that to have this value, it must be genuine history, not the practical past in disguise”.

    This purpose is the most brittle, and breaks at first examination. Firstly, no history student can claim that they are always transcended in the study of history. Lawrence Stone (quoted in Evans 2000: 122) painted a positively earthly picture of the historian when, excusing some of his own errors, he wrote,

    “when you work in the archives, you’re far from home, you’re bored , you’re in a hurry, you’re scribbling like crazy”

    Secondly, it is not realistic to transpose the picture of the indulgent leisure of an “ante-bellum” Edwardian scholar over the image of the world today, where the post-graduate history student is looking for his or her next source of funding, and where school children want to know what jobs history GCSE will help you get.

    Thirdly, the assertion that history should be taught for it’s own sake hides two assumptions, which we will also note below, in connection with the purpose of school history for factual transmission, namely; (1) that history exists as one “history”, and therefore available to be studied “for its own sake”, and (2) that history itself has no utilitarian purpose other than its own purpose of, finding the truth

    The first I will deal with below when talking about the epistemological simplicity of the related view of the “grand tradition”, The second fails when we realise that, in reality, from the Italian Duke sponsoring a history to the guide to the past a modern “historic” market town, history has always had a utilitarian purpose. These objections, along with the lessons of the linguistic turn, show that Lee’s practical past is therefore always present in history, consciously or subconsciously, and that “real history” neither exists, nor has its “own” sake. Even Lee’s history is not studied for its own sake, but for the sake of a “transformation” in the student,

    “the reason for teaching history is not that it changes society, but that it changes pupils” (author’s emphasis) (Lee 1991:43).

    What ramifications do these hidden assumptions and the arguments above have on the nature of school history? Slater accuses history for its own sake of becoming a

    “slogan used by the educational right wing, striving to divert students of history away from uncomfortable critical skills which question and challenge assumptions, rather than transmit values” (Slater 1992: p.47),

    whilst it is usually wiser to subscribe to the “cock-up” rather than the conspiracy theory, Slater’s point is demonstrably a valid one, although not necessarily one that should be attributed solely to the machinations of the right wing. A Labour party MP, in a recent Fabian Society press release,requested that history be taught as follows

    “Telling the story of empire as fact rather than good or bad thing has an important role to play” (Fabians 2005).

    History for its own sake is therefore a cover story for “The Grand Tradition”.

    References available when I’ve finished the essay, got time, or indeed on request!


    5 Responses to The Puposes of School History (3) – For its Own Sake

    1. February 18, 2006 at 12:04 am

      So what you’re really saying is that ‘for it’s own sake’ is an ambiguous concept and one that means different things to different people?

    2. Ed
      February 18, 2006 at 8:31 am

      Well, no, not really Doug. I am saying that history means different things to different people, that it’s always imbued with the purposes of its creators and that its therefore difficult to assert that it has its “own sake”, that even when people say that they want history for its own sake they really mean that they want it for their sakes, or for a sake they hold dear, and that therefore history for its own sake is a mutation of the grand tradition of “facts, give them facts”.

    3. February 20, 2006 at 10:04 pm

      You hammer the history for its ‘own sake’ argument but I’m not sure I quite understand the extent to which “History for its own sake is therefore a cover story for “The Grand Tradition”.” Is this simply a case of clarification – ‘History for its own sake is therefore *often* a cover story for the Grand Tradition’? Or are you saying that the quest to strip History of its wider purposes and focus only on ‘facts’ inevitably places it into the ‘Grand tradition’?

      And is this really a fair use of the term ‘grand tradition’? Although it might have stressed the teaching of facts, did it not also believe in the role of teaching History serving a wider purpose – national unity, belief in parliamentary democracy… although maybe your point is that these values were largely hidden. Thus, ‘for its own sake’ allows these values to remain hidden.

      Hmmm, yet again, very interesting!!!!

    4. March 14, 2006 at 8:24 am

      I have always been totally opposed to the idea of “history for it’s own sake”. To me history teaching is about political education. When I started teaching in 1977 most history teachers claimed they were “objective” professionals who did not allow their own political opinions to influence their teaching.

      When SHP history was being developed in the 1970s they were concerned about the possible exposure of the teacher’s political ideology while teaching the course and at first only sanctioned what they considered to be “safe” topics. Even a course unit on Nazi Germany was rejected because it was considered too “political”.

      I became aware that objective history was a problem once I began producing my own teaching materials. Given my own unhappiness with the quality of the commercial materials available in the 1970s, this happened straight away.

      W.H.B. Court has pointed out: “History free of all values cannot be written. Indeed, it is a concept almost impossible to understand, for men will scarcely take the trouble to inquire laboriously into something which they set no value upon.” That has always been the case with my writing. Unless I have strong views on the subject, I don’t bother to write about it.

      The first materials I ever produced concerned the First World War. It was a subject I had felt passionately about for many years. In fact, I can date it to 1956, the year that I inherited from my father the brass medal type object that provided details of my grandfather’s death at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. My research into why he died did not give me a value-free view of the war.

      These materials were about interpretations of the First World War. It of course included quotations from historians who were sympathetic to Sir Douglas Haig and other generals who followed the policy of “attrition”. It also included quotes from historians who were critical of this approach. For example, Llewellyn Woodward argued in his book “Great Britain and the War of 1914-1918 (1967): “Haig failed to comprehend that the policy of ‘attrition’ or in plain English, ‘killing Germans’ until the German army was worn down and exhausted, was not only wasteful and, intellectually, a confession of impotence; it was also extremely dangerous. The Germans might counter Haig’s plan by allowing him to wear down his own army in a series of unsuccessful attacks against a skilful defence. Fortunately the enemy generals were of much the same ‘textbook’ type of mind as Haig.”

      I quoted people like Duff Cooper who made a good job of defending people like Haig (the book was actually commissioned by the Haig family): “There are still those who argue that the Battle of the Somme should never have been fought and that the gains were not commensurate with the sacrifice. There exists no yardstick for the measurement of such events, there are no returns to prove whether life has been sold at its market value. There are some who from their manner of reasoning would appear to believe that no battle is worth fighting unless it produces an immediately decisive result which is as foolish as it would be to argue that in a prize fight no blow is worth delivering save the one that knocks the opponent out.”

      I also used extracts from Haig’s own defence of his tactics. But more importantly, I used extracts from those who had to endure Haig’s orders. For example, William Brooks, who survived his time on the Western Front: “Haig’s nickname was the butcher. He’d think nothing of sending thousands of men to certain death. The utter waste and disregard for human life and human suffering by the so-called educated classes who ran the country. What a wicked waste of life. I’d hate to be in their shoes when they face their Maker.”

      Although on the surface my teaching materials appeared to be objective because they attempted to tell all sides of the story (this included David Lloyd George’s attempts in his memoirs to distance himself from the military tactics used on the Western Front) it was far from being objective history. In fact, it was my “interpretation” of the past. The selection of the primary sources by the author plays an important role in delivering your interpretation of past events. I am fully aware of the different ways that the student will react to different sources. For example, which one is the most convincing, a dry defence of Haig by Duff Cooper or a passionate attack on him by William Brooks?

      I was guilty of using quotations against the people who made them. For example, here is what Sir Douglas Haig had to say about military tactics in a 1926 book review: “I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity for the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse – the well-bred horse – as you have ever done in the past.” It seems that Haig had learnt very little from his experience on the Western Front.

      Hegel once said that: “Peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” Maybe so, but I prefer to believe the comments of H. G. Wells: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe”.

    5. Nicola Sheldon
      January 30, 2009 at 11:02 am

      I would like to follow up John’s comment on the SHP’s early policy of only sanctioning ‘safe’ topics. I am currently at the start of a two-year research project into the ‘history of history teaching’ in England 1960-2010 based at the Institute of Historical Research. As part of our project we want to talk to history teachers (retired and currently teaching) about their experience in the classroom as well as the controversies surrounding school history. At the moment, I am starting to examine the exciting curriculum developments of the ‘sixties and would really like to know more from John. If he would be happy to get in touch with me, please send him my email address.
      Best wishes
      Dr Nicola Sheldon
      Institute of Historical Research

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