The Purposes of School History (4) The Transformative Power of School History

transformativeAs we have already seen, for Peter Lee

“The reason for teaching history is not that it changes society, but that it changes pupils” (Lee 1991: 43).

Lee’s school history

“changes what [pupils] see and how they see it” (Lee 1991:43)

This much could be said of any form of schooling and any form of school history – all schooling is supposed to make some transformation in history.


However, the nature of this transformation is particular to history in that, according to Lee, it can only occur if real history is taught.

“It can only do this if it is history that is being taught” (Lee 1991:43).

This history that is to be taught,

“is rational because it incorporates public criteria and operates through open procedures. These do not guarantee truth, but they do make the discipline a serious attempt to produce the best account we can, given the state of our questioning and the evidence available”.


Lee further distinguishes his history by distinguishing it from something called “the practical past”; the past being used for the purposes of social engineering, social cohesion or perhaps party purposes. Lee claims that Kitson Clark “elegantly” sets out the dangers of this approach,

“words are converted into spells, symbols are endowed with emotional force and stereotypes emerge…powerful forces… which are of much use to those who wish to invoke irrational loyalties (Lee 1991:43).


Of course, the extreme post-modern philosopher would point out that one person’s irrational loyalties are another’s historical duties, or rational survival tactics, or treasured traditions; there is no truth for the historian to aim for. To the extent that this philosopher is correct then all the purpose of history are equally valid, being equally invalid. It could be argued that Lee’s purpose of history is therefore as crystalline as any other.


Yet Lee goes quite a long way to recognising and confronting the post-modern challenge when he admits that history does not “guarantee truth” but is an attempt to “produce the best account we can”, based on “public criteria” and “open procedures”. The main error of the extreme post-modern analysis is that, in asserting that errors in communication are inevitable, it leaps from denying the possibility of meaning being transmitted purely between author and reader, evidence and historian, historian to reader or speaker to listener, to denying the possibility of any meaning being understood between them. Our everyday life of getting on buses, paying taxes, making friendships or discussing television programmes assures us that this is not the case. Lee acknowledges that history does not “guarantee truth”; however, for Lee this is precisely history’s strength.


This strength is not in history as an account of the past, but in history as an academic discipline. Thus the transformation in Lee’s pupils of history is brought about not because they are taught a particular version of what happens, but because they are given the public criteria and enabled to take part in the open procedures that characterise academic history.


The ramifications for the question of progression in school history of Lee’s “transformative” aim are therefore relatively clear. School history must teach these criteria and give access to the procedures of academic history to its pupils. This would seem to require a teaching of “skills” over “content”. Indeed, later in his article Lee sets out the things that school history must teach, which range from dispositions such as “committment to the truth, respect for the past, impartiality” (Lee 1991: p.51) to structural concepts such as “change, continuity and significance” (p.53) through to varying types of “generalizations”, without any reference to any particular historcial event. Lee states however, that to claim that he argues that the “development of second-order concepts is the real goal of history teaching” is to reduce the debate to “sterility” p.52.


For Lee

“the point of learning history is to understand the past, but if children are to achieve understanding their assumptions about what history is and how it works must be developed alongside it”(p.52).


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