My subject is History.
This essay will break down the task set by the essay into constituent parts. This essay shall consideration the spiritual, intellectual, moral social and intellectual development of pupils as occasioned by the study of History. However, this essay shall not examine the said forms of development in the sequence set out in the title. Be it understood this jumbling of the constituent parts is quite deliberate.
There is the hackneyed phrase that we must learn, ”the lessons of History otherwise we are condemned to repeat them.” This trite observation has some merit to it. The trouble is that it is fearfully difficult to determine what those lessons are. In 1914 we are told that it was a mistake to zealously enforce treaties because this caused war. Conversely the lesson of the 1930s is that one should strictly uphold treaties because this would avoid war. Without delving into the minutiae in each case these claims are specious but nonetheless that is the conventional view. Such glib a rationalisation of historical decisions is the stuff of which this ‘lessons of history’ school of thought it made. No one that this writer knows of has been able to boil down the lessons of history into anything easily digestible. If there were lessons of such import and lucidity they surely would have been long ago learnt and many tears would have been avoided. One of the problems associated with this lessons of History is the trap of false comparison. Was the order to taken military action in 2003 an example of the Coalition avoiding the mistakes of 1930s style appeasement or was it a case of the Coalition being Nazi-type aggressors like the 1930s? This depends upon one’s standpoint. The writer of this essay has a very strong opinion on the matter but shall not divulge it here. It strikes me that very few have imbibed the lessons of History since we seem to be committing them again and again. Dr Karl Marx made much the same point in his essay, ”On the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” Marx noted that he was paraphrasing an earlier Hegelian about History repeating itself the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. This was of course because Louis Bonaparte (Napoleon III) carried out a coup like his uncle had 52 years earlier and at about the same time of year. The 18th Brumaire date alludes to the putsch launched by Napoleon I not the actual date of the takeover by Napoleon III.
Firstly, let us define our terms. History is the study of evidence about the human past. It should not be more recent than about 30 years in arrear. This is because in the United Kingdom there is a thirty year rule. Some sensitive government documents are not released until 30 years after they were written. Indeed some documents are so secret or controversial that a hundred years later they are still not released. This is true of documents relating to Roger Casement for instance – executed for high treason in 1916 because during a war be collaborated with the German Government to smuggle weapons into the United Kingdom for the purpose of starting a rebellion.
Spiritual may be taken to mean religious so as to give pupils a better understanding of formal religions or a sense of numinousness about the world. History allows pupils to commune with dead generations and to feel part of a much wider whole. The author of this essay recalls as a child visiting places of serious historical import and feeling a curious sense of connection to famous historical figures and to bygone centuries. Whether it is visiting Tyne Cot Cemetery near Ypres or going to the grave of Catherine of Aragon – History can impart a strange but healthy sense of contact with those who have passed on. The saying goes, ”The past is another country – they do things differently there.” It ain’t necessarily so. To connect with one’s ancestors and ancestresses is to feel part and parcel of the very loam of one’s homeland. This can also be true of being in contact with humanity as a whole. One can come to appreciate the sameness of people all over the world – especially if one goes back far enough. Having pupils look at pre-History helps them to develop an understanding of how national, racial and religious differences are to a great extent a construct. In a sense such divisions are artificial since what is known of pre-Historic communities leads one to conclude that they were pretty much the same all over the globe.
History can examine the growth and dissemination of religions. The author of this self-same essay was in the difficult position of teaching pupils who were 90% Muslim about the Rise of Islam when the author himself is not from that background. It had to be rammed home to these Mohammedan pupils that they were looking at Islamic Civilisation as History and not as religious studies. The textbook had lengthy quotations from the Koran and from the Hadith (being a record of the life of the Prophet Mohammad Peace be Upon Him).
What is especially enlightening is to teach pupils about religions that absolutely no one believes in. The author of this essay has taught pupils about Ancient Rome and made the point that nobody practises the faith of that pantheon anymore. This has been challenged by a pupil who said the teacher could not make such a claim. The child herself could not furnish any examples of anyone who still lent credence to the cult of Jupiter and his vassal gods and goddesses. The point is this – pupils will see that dead religions bear striking similarities to living religions. This may lead to some uncomfortable self-questioning on behalf of those who have been raised in households that are religiously observant. It is therefore sage of a teacher not to labour the point.
The consideration of morality when learning of historical events is a vexatious issue. It is very debatable whether or not pupils ought to be invited to regard actions in the past in terms of rectitude or turpitude. To do so it to introduce a measure of moral philosophy into History. History should be just that and not some attempt to impose value judgments on the past. This is especially true of the distant past when mores were very different.
It is simply infantile to attempt to divide historical protagonists into facile categories such as good guys and bad guys. People act for much the same motives whichever side they are on. A type of historical event which is fiendishly tricky to examine as good versus evil is war. Heaven knows there have been enough armed conflicts in the annals. One of the dispiriting but indisputable facts about war is that wars are fought for two reasons – sometimes for both these reasons at the same time. They are fought over resources and ideology (which can include religion). That is one of the less uplifting lessons of History is that little changes. Notions of a sudden outbreak of universal and saecula saeculorum peace have been oft made but as yet unfulfilled. Such a boast at the end of many wars is dangerously vapid. It is equally dispiriting to see how often wars have been fought – for peace. This bitter irony is best seen in the First World War – the war to end all wars. As has been noted in the Middle East it seemed to transmogrify into the peace to end all peace.
If ever there is a moral issue it is surely this – when can it be right to willfully take human life? In the case of war this is innocent life since soldiers on all sides are not bad people unless they commit some atrocity. When is it morally acceptable to declare war? The rights and wrongs of past conflicts are incredibly difficult to determine as belligerents are busy acting as falsifiers of the chronicles even before the conflict has commenced. To establish the truth through the welter of claim and counterclaim is a near impossible task. Even were one able to find the whole and precise truth there would seldom be a case in which one party to a war was completely righteous and the other was utterly unrighteous.
This is not to say that pupils can not gain any moral uplift from learning about History. Certainly there are people who have been heroes by anyone’s definition. Likewise there have been people who surely qualify as villains in the view of any right thinking member of society.
One of the difficulties with looking at the past is imposing contemporary values on a different era. Take the case of slavery. Involuntary servitude was seldom questioned until the tail end of the 18th century. Slaves themselves may be presumed to have not been best pleased at their unenviable predicament but the broader issue of whether it was ever ethical to take someone hostage and compel them to work without pay and to deprive them of autonomy does not seem to have been a question that scratched the minds of many. One can look at slaveholders as being cruel, exploitative as they undoubtedly were. One should also have regard to the need to judge people by the standards of their time. Those who held slaves at that time were often seen as pillars of society and often seemed to see themselves as being fine, upstanding moral citizens. The fact that George Washington held slaves and many of the Founding Fathers of the United States were slaveholders was dismissed as a trivial issue until about the 1970s. In more recent decades people have begun to see that History has let George Washington and his colleagues off rather too lightly on this issue.
The study of History patently contributes to the social formation of the pupils since it allows them to comprehend how societies develop and operate. Pupils will see different systems of governance. They will see continuity in government over time and changes – some gradual and some revolutionary.
Pupils often have to co-operate on discussion tasks and this assists their socialisation. Joint projects can also help them to learn interpersonal skills. Discussion among pupils, facilitated by the teacher, is a means of enhancing the social as well as the educational development of the pupils as recognised by the National Literacy Trust:
”Questioning by both teachers and pupils is foundational in improving comprehension. It
should involve the explicit exploration and development of literal, inferential and evaluative
questioning. Revisit your approach to guided reading to ensure it is effective in developing
enthusiasm, response and key skills. Guided reading groups use cooperative learning and
should complement other strategies.” (‘Literacy Guide for Secondary Schools’ 2012).
This assuredly is the chief purpose of education. Without getting into high falutin’ notions of intellectual formation one can see that the study of History advances the education of pupils. One need only look at the Ofsted policy on literacy across the curriculum to see that learning History is most useful in teaching pupils to read more, to widen their vocabulary, to spell correctly, to write grammatically, to speak grammatically and so on and so forth. Here is the exceptional standard that Ofsted has set for the very brightest pupils and this is what we should work towards: ”Pupils’ writing has shape and impact and shows control of a range of styles maintaining the interest of the reader throughout. Narratives use structure as well as vocabulary for a range of imaginative effects, and non-fiction is coherent, reasoned and persuasive. A variety of grammatical constructions and punctuation is used accurately and appropriately and with sensitivity. Paragraphs are well constructed and linked in order to clarify the organisation of the writing as as a whole.” (p. 15 ‘Reading, Writing, Communication and Literacy’ 2011).
The intellectual gains in History go much beyond literacy skills. In more high brow terms one can observe the great scope for intellectual development inasmuch as History, especially at A level, requires pupils to examine different viewpoints. Pupils are compelled to critique views, to form their own opinions and to defend them. Essay technique taught as standard is to consider at length the argument with which one disagrees and then place the big but in the middle – to later state the counter-argument. Pupils learn to view information sceptically. They development sceptically. There are higher order reasoning skills such as identifying causes and consequences. Short term and long term causes may be categorised. Pupils learn to rank reasons in order of relative importance.
Worthwhile intellectual development through History will expose pupils to countries and centuries with which the previously had little contact. One may so that of course pupils cannot have had contact with centuries in which they have not lived. But pupils now know people who were alive in the twentieth century even though the said pupils may not themselves have been born then so in fact a child born since the Millennium may be said to have had contact with the century immediately prior to this one. Further, pupils are often taught a great deal of 16th century History. It is wise for a school to seek to introduce pupils to centuries that the pupils have not thus far encountered. In this author’s private tuition he sought, in Oxford preparation, to require pupils to look at something that was not from the 20th century. It is also valuable not to be so Eurocentric – too much History taught in British schools is about the 20th century. This is partly because it is so recent and therefore accessible on all sorts of levels. This indicates a certain indolence of approach. The Third Reich is a particular favourite. It is well worked over. It is chosen time and again for various reasons. Some of these are profound such as the anomaly of a high cultured and technologically advanced society being led to commit acts of extreme cruelty on a continent-wide scale. There are more banal and mundane explanations for the unhealthy British fascination with the Third Reich. The advent of Adolf Hitler coincided with the first time film could be shot outside a studio with decent sound recording. Before about 1930 there are very few films. Before 1927 there are no films with spoken dialogue. The Third Reich is an old chestnut beloved by Britishers because it also shows the United Kingdom as the good guy. Unfortunately much more time is spent on these 12 years of German History than the centuries of German History put together. Necessarily the view of many British people of Germany is wildly askew. This distortion is resultant upon this fixation with the years of the Hitler administration.
The trouble with teaching pupils about more distant centuries is that they are so alien to today’s children. One must reintroduce them to concepts that flummox them such as the feudal system. Many find it hard to conceive of a society with such primitive technology and in which formal religion plays such a prominent role. The fact that very few people could write before the 17th century in the British Isles leads more than a few pupils to the erroneous conclusion that people in former epochs were stupid.
Historical knowledge is de rigeur for an appreciation of most arts. In order to understand opera, fiction, poetry, painting, drawing, printmaking, ballet, theatre and film some historical context is needed. Schools sometimes co-ordinate their curriculum on this. For example while the English Department will teach pupils First World War poetry the History Department teaches the pupils about the Great War in the same term.
Culture does not exist in a vacuum. It is a historical outgrowth. Cultures are handed down from one generation to the next. Historical cross-fertilisation is a historical process. For instance in Brazil the cultural mixture present there shows elements of Portuguese influence and African influence. This can be explained with reference to the History of this land.
Marcus Garvey said, ”that a people without knowledge of their past history, culture and origins is like a tree without roots.” This national hero of Jamaica was quite right. He was incidentally not educated enough to avoid the jarring tautology ”past history.” This his syntax was at fault the substance of his statement was sound. One cannot comprehend one’s culture without some considerable knowledge of one’s History.
In conclusion this essay observes that the study of History indeed contributes handily to the development of pupils in several ways. This subjects facilitates their advancement in spiritual, intellectual, moral, social and cultural ways. For pupils to enter adult life without a decent grounding in History is to make them spiritually bankrupt, morally illiterate, socially deprived, intellectually stultified and culturally impoverished. History complements these aspects of a child’s development. That is why it is key that pupils be required to learn about History until their middle teens. This does not mean dry as dust rote learning. There needs to be some acquisition of facts to be sure but also an exercise of the critical faculties.