• An affirmation of purpose

    by  • February 27, 2006 • Uncategorized • 1 Comment

    isaiahberlin.jpgTeaching history is a maddening blur. From class to class, keystage to keystage, year to year, through assessment and skills, to content, final levels and added value; the day to day concerns of a history teacher can often obscure the bigger picture. This bigger picture consists partly of why we teach history at all at secondary school. The reasons for teaching history are various, and many attempts have been made to categorize them.

    My purpose is to explore what “progress” or “progression” in school history means. It seems logical that we should start off by asking the question “what is school history for?”, in the hope that, having established what the aims should be, we can treat this as an endpoint, and therefore begin to plot a course showing us how to get there. It is hoped that, in the day to day confusion of the average school history teacher’s day, it will be useful to have an overriding sense of purpose, a meta-purpose, if you will, of why he or she is doing what she is doing. I hope to provide something approaching a rule, or tool, to provide this sense of purpose.

    The word rule implies something straight – as crystalline as previous commentaries on the purposes of school history. This however, is not my aim. Kant one said that

    “Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made, nothing entirely straight can be built” (quoted in Berlin 2003: p.v).

    History is a (the?) quintessentially human activity and as such is prey (if that is the right word) to the foibles, facets, faults. nooks and crannies of all human experience and effort. Just as the linguistic turn has taught us that these human aspects should encourage us not only to be more circumspect in the claims that we make about history, but also to be more creative in our historical methods, so it should make us think more carefully about whether we can set out clear and unbending aims and purposes for school history.

    School history is taught and learned by humans. The aims of school history will themselves be devised, selected, received and understood in an infinite variety of ways, many of which will compete with each other, and some of which will be incompatible with each other. Taking my inspiration from Isaiah Berlin, I aim for a rule that preserves the humanity of history:

    “To force people into the neat uniforms demanded by dogmatically believed in schemes is almost always the road to inhumanity” (Berlin 2003: 19).

    Therefore, I aim for a rule that Berlin might approve of, a rule that bends so as not to break at the first test of reality – a rule made from the crooked timber of humanity.


    One Response to An affirmation of purpose

    1. March 13, 2006 at 8:00 am

      Here are some quotations that attempt to answer this question:

      “The task of the historian is to understand the peoples of the past better than they understand themselves.” Herbert Butterfield

      “History has to be rewritten in every generation, because although the past does not change the present does; each generation asks new questions of the past, and finds new areas of sympathy as it re-lives different aspects of the experiences of its predecessors.” Christopher Hill

      “Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck by the difference between what things are and what they might have been.” William Hazlitt.

      “History is as much an art as a science.” (Ernest Renan).

      History is the sextant and compass of states, which, tossed by wind and current, would be lost in confusion if they could not fix their position.” (Alan Nevins).

      “The historians are the guardians of tradition, the priests of the cult of nationality, the prophets of social reform, the exponents and upholders of national virtue and glory” (Philip Bagby).

      “The study of history is a personal matter, in which the activity is generally more valuable than the result (V. H. Galbraith).

      “A society sure of its values had needed history only to celebrate the glories of the past, but a society of changing values and consequent confusions also needed history as a utilitarian guide.” (Thomas Cochran).

      “The aim of the historian, like that of the artist, is to enlarge our picture of the world, to give us a new way of looking at things.” (James Joll).

      “A mere collector of supposed facts is as useful as a collector of matchboxes.” (Lucien Febvre)

      “Consciousness of the past alone can make us understand the present.” (Herbert Luethy). ‘

      “It is a mark of civilised man that he seeks to understand his traditions,
      and to criticise them, not to swallow them whole.” (M. I. Finley).

      “The disadvantage of men not knowing the past is that they do not know the present.” (G. K. Chesterton)

      “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.” (Cicero)

      “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” (Aldous Huxley)

      “The history of the world is the history of the privileged few. “ Henry Miller

      “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)

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