History as commemoration
History as commemoration

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History as commemoration

1 Overview

1.1 Choosing the past for the future

History is selective. What history books tell us about the past is not everything that happened, but what historians have selected. They cannot put in everything: choices have to be made. Choices must similarly be made about which aspects of the past should be formally taught to the next generation in the shape of school history lessons. So, for example, when a national school curriculum for England and Wales was first discussed at the end of the 1980s, the history curriculum was the subject of considerable public and media interest. Politicians argued about it; people wrote letters to the press about it; the Prime Minister of the time, Margaret Thatcher, intervened in the debate.

Exercise 1

To get something of the flavour of the debate, read the three letters below – all published in the same month in 1990 (the first two were published in The Times, and the third in The Sunday Times). Note down any thoughts you have on why the question of what children learn about in their history lessons might be controversial.


These letters raise several issues. The three I would like to discuss are:

  1. the content of the history curriculum. Should children be focused more on the history of the country they live in, or on the history of countries that are or have been powerful influences on world events? Should they learn political history? Social history? Cultural history? Should they learn about rulers and statesmen/women, or how ordinary people conducted their lives, and the issues which concerned them privately?

  2. the degree to which children should be asked to concentrate on developing skills as opposed to learning facts;

  3. the question of what is a ‘fact’ raised by Martin Auton through his rather provocative reference to the then topical ‘poll tax’ riots.

Let us think first about the question of content. There were two main camps on this issue – those who thought the history of Britain should take pride of place, and those who favoured what was referred to as ‘world history’. I would like you to read the following three contributions to the debate.

The Historical Association is not in the business of encouraging blinkered British nationalism. It is in the business of encouraging national self-awareness through the education of our children. The Historical Association is not saying that only recent history is ‘relevant’ history. It is saying that recent history can be made doubly relevant for all pupils in school.

(Donald Read, President of the Historical Association, The Times Educational Supplement, 29 August 1986)

I will mention one subject which is causing me growing concern, as I learn more about what pupils are actually being taught. That subject is history. There are many reasons why schools should teach it. One of them is its contribution to preparing pupils for the responsibilities of adult status. They cannot play their full part in operating and improving the institutions of our society or in preserving, constructively criticizing and adapting its values, unless they have a well developed sense of our national past. They need to have some feelings for the flow of events that have led to where we are, how our present political and social fabric and attitudes have their roots in the English Reformation, the Reform Bills, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Suffragette Movement, and how our national security, our place in the world, was shaped by Waterloo and El Alamein. For Britain's past includes her relations with other countries so that we need some understanding of their past also. It was Kipling who said, ‘And what should they know of England who only England know?’ It also includes the contributions made over the centuries by those who have settled here from other lands. There is far more history that deserves to be taught in our schools than there is likely to be time to teach. So the selection is crucial. My concern is that so much of the selection is unbalanced and that pupils leave school without an adequate mental map of those things which have led us to where we are now and without the wherewithal to form even a preliminary judgment on what was good, bad, glorious or inglorious.

(Kenneth Baker, Secretary of State for Education, speech to the Society of Education Officers, 23 January 1987)

If British history includes Cecil Rhodes and his dream of populating Africa with Englishmen, then it must include King William Dappa Pepple Bonny V and his wife Queen Annie, who lived in Tottenham in 1857–1861, seeking reinstatement to their thrones in Nigeria, having been expelled from their homeland by the British.

(Sylvia Collicott, Senior Lecturer in History, North London Polytechnic, Journal of the Assistant Masters’ and Mistresses’ Association, 1987)

Exercise 2

Taking as a starting point the ideas in the extracts above by Read, Baker and Collicott, give three reasons that support the following:

‘Teachers should focus on the national history of their pupils’ own country.’

(It does not matter at this stage whether you actually agree.)

Then give three reasons to support the following:

‘Teachers should teach the history of the whole world.’

Again, you do not need to agree.



Here are some possible reasons relating to school history in the United Kingdom. If your list relates to a different country, you may nevertheless find some parallels.

Some reasons for focusing on the national history of the pupils’ own country

  1. Britain's present situation comes out of its past, so you can't understand Britain today without knowing British history.

  2. It's important for British children to develop a sense of national pride in past British achievements.

  3. Much of the past is still with us, in the form of buildings and the layout of town and country, so British children should study British history to make sense of their environment.

Some reasons for covering the history of the whole world

  1. It's important for British children to realise that there are different histories and different cultures in the world, in order to develop tolerance and a sense of perspective.

  2. Many British children come from families whose history is located in other parts of the world. They need to understand how families from different areas have come to live in Britain, and so do those children whose families have lived in Britain for much longer.

  3. It's important to understand how the economic powers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have developed and are developing – not just the USA and Japan, but Singapore, Taiwan and other Asian countries.

You might also have written down some reasons that could support the study of both national history and world history:

Some reasons for focusing on national history/world history

  1. Children need to be able to identify with their own families, whether they have always lived in the country or come from other countries.

  2. It's important to teach history that will capture children's imaginations and keep them interested.

  3. It doesn't matter what history you teach, it's how you teach it. It is not facts that are important, but skills.

We can see from these different points of view that the selection of the history that we want to pass on to the next generation can be controversial. Some people consider that the history children should learn is the history of the powerful – the rulers, leaders and legislators, soldiers and statesmen. They should learn the history of law-making, of empire, of capital, of high culture. But others would suggest that the history of peasants, slaves, workers and women – the powerless, the unnamed and forgotten majority, those who were on the receiving end of everything the powerful group decided to do – is equally or more worthy of study. This so-called ‘history from below’ grew in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s and made its way increasingly into both academic history and school syllabuses.

So – in addition to setting national history against world history – the line-up in the debates on the history curriculum set ‘headline history’ against ‘history from below’. Should we emphasise the ‘movers and shakers’ – the doers – in history? Or those who, you might say, had history done to them?

Exercise 3

Below is a list of topics taken from chapter or section headings in school history curriculum materials that were available in Britain in the 1970s or 1980s. Print the list, then try to categorise them by writing against each ‘HH’ (for headline history) or ‘HB’ (for history from below). You may need to speculate a bit on what might be included under the headings, and some might attract both descriptions. Then select not more than fifteen that you think are suitable for children learning history in Britain or your own country, and note down your reasons:

The Fate of the Plains Indians Russian Women bring out their own Newspapers
Coal – the Basis of Wealth Food Producers in Defoe's Time
The left-out Millions The Rise of the Labour Party
The Decline of Religion Migration and Multicultural Britain
The Village Wheelwright The War in the Desert
The Cold War and Korea Nationalism and the Unification of Germany
Bismarck's Early Life The Right and Left in European Politics
Great Britain – an island Empire Austria-Hungary – a Patchwork Empire
Women Criminals Having Children in the Middle Ages
Pioneers go to the Far West Was the Battle of Little Big Horn really a victory for the Indians?



It may not have been easy to decide which to leave out. But you may have found you had a preference either for headline history or for history from below, or for a balanced diet of both. Similarly you will probably have had to limit yourself to some areas of the world for your syllabus, to avoid ending up with a lightning tour that could only be superficial.

The purpose of that exercise was to illustrate the point made above, that what the next generation learns in the form of school history is selected. Wherever the curriculum is laid down by the state, it will be the politicians who make the selections. Because history deals with power and wealth, with national pride, with majority and minority groups and the struggles between them that may still be taking place, their selection is always likely to be controversial.


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