History as commemoration
History as commemoration

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History as commemoration

2 Facts and skills in history

The second issue we identified in the 1990 debate was the divide some people saw between facts and skills, arguing about facts or skills, as if you couldn't teach or learn both. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher issued a plea for ‘facts’ rather than ‘skills and understanding’. Commander Michael Saunders-Watson, who chaired the government's working group on the history curriculum, made his position clear when he published his final report:

Without understanding, history is reduced to parrot-learning, and assessment to a parlour memory game. In the case of the French Revolution, the answer to the question, ‘What was the date of Louis XVI's execution?’ may tell us something about the pupils’ powers of recollection, but nothing about their understanding of the great issues of social conflict, social change and the effect of the revolution outside France.

(National Curriculum History Working Group, 1990)

But the idea many people have of history, and the experience of history they remember, is just the parrot-learning of facts. School history during much of the twentieth century was presented as little more than that. If this is your experience of history, you may recognise a situation in which historical facts seemed to have a status beyond challenge. You could ask what happened, when it happened or even why it happened. What was less often asked was ‘What was its significance?’ or ‘What was its legacy?’, and certainly not ‘How do you know?’ or ‘Are you sure this is really what happened?’

The nature of the evidence behind assertions was not always queried. But historians who cannot point to the evidence that supports their interpretation of history cannot expect to be believed without challenge. We need to treat historians rather as if they are asking us for a loan. We shouldn't trust them on sight, but should demand to see their credentials and have access to their accounts.

There are all kinds of sources of historical knowledge and understanding, many of them dating from the period being studied. But none of them should necessarily be taken at face value. Very often contemporaries – even eye-witnesses of a particular event – disagree. We need to evaluate the evidence and assess which witnesses are reliable.

Let us return for a moment to the issue of ‘facts versus skills’. Why should anyone oppose the learning of skills? To be against skills sounds eccentric, like being against cooking or wood-turning, or riding a bicycle. One of the skills involved was that of evaluating evidence, and establishing the grounds for opinions or assertions described above, which you might think is essential even to begin to study history, and indeed to studying the arts at all.

I would not like to suggest what was in anyone's mind in resisting the idea that children should learn this skill. Agendas of all colours tend to arise from the issues of the moment, and look different with hindsight. But you will find that the writers of this course are likely to support the questioning, critical, slightly sceptical approach that not only constantly asks ‘how do you know?’, but is also inclined to challenge you with the plea put graphically in the seventeenth century by Oliver Cromwell, ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, consider that you may be mistaken’. This approach will force you to be ruthless both with yourself and with what you read, and to avoid leaving assumptions unchallenged, facts unverified, and assertions ungrounded.

So if people want children to learn ‘facts’, there is an important question to ask: how can you establish what is fact and what is merely surmise, probability, rumour or myth? When can you say that a probability of something having happened is sufficient to call it a fact? It is always important to remember that the range of sources relevant to a particular period or event is limited partly by what has survived the fortunes of time, and partly by choices and emphases made when these sources were being written (or built, painted or otherwise created).

There are some things people feel they know beyond question, for example that King Harold of England was shot in the eye at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 which was won by Duke William of Normandy (William the Conqueror). If you look for evidence, you find there is none, except the depiction in the Bayeux Tapestry (Figure 1), which may be of Anglo-Saxon manufacture, of an unidentified soldier among a group of others with an arrow in what might be his eye, near but not directly beneath a Latin caption reading ‘King Harold was killed’. There is another soldier near the caption, too (on horseback); he is more conspicuously dying and does not have an arrow in his eye. Which, if either, is supposed to be King Harold? Sometimes we have to conclude that, without further evidence, we simply cannot be sure, and cannot speak definitely about facts at all.

Figure 1
Figure 1 In the eye? A section of the Bayeux Tapestry that may show the death of King Harold. (Musée de la Tapisserie, Bayeux. Photograph: Giraudon)

Of course, we can take steps to find evidence to verify the facts. For instance, if you wanted to check the accuracy of the biographical details about Siegfried Sassoon, one piece of evidence that might help is a medical case sheet. It raises further questions of fact, of varying interest and importance. Did Sassoon have double pneumonia when he was 11 and 14 or was it when he was 8 and 15? Was he entirely rational when he decided to make his ‘Protest'? Was it ever read out in the House of Commons?

Exercise 4

The third issue I raised earlier in the course concerned the two contradictory ‘facts’ quoted by Martin Auton about events at the large public meeting – what we would now call a demonstration – at St Peter's Fields just outside Manchester in 1819, which became known as ‘Peterloo’. He asks which of two statements, both describing what happened, is fact: is it A or B?

  • A    ‘a large gathering threatened law and order and property, necessitating prompt preventative action by the authorities’;

  • B    ‘the agents of repressive government “massacred” a crowd of innocent people manifesting a genuine grievance’.

Auton does not appear to be expecting a ‘right’ answer. What point do you think he is trying to make?

Compare the words or phrases in A and B which refer to the same thing. For instance, A refers to ‘a large gathering’, where B refers to ‘a crowd of innocent people’. Can you go on? How do the words you have written down betray the writer's point of view? Please note down your answers and any further questions the issue raises.


Statement A appears to be the view of someone opposing the views of the demonstrators, and B the view of someone supporting them. The other comparisons I noticed are:

threatened law and order and property manifesting a genuine grievance
prompt preventative action ‘massacred’
the authorities the agents of repressive government

Once again the writer's choice of words is important. Different words put different slants on meaning, which raises the question of what is a fact, and the difference between fact and opinion.

Exercise 5

Read this list of ‘facts’ about a fictitious person, and note down any that you regard as ‘more opinion than fact':

  1. X had a happy childhood

  2. X left school without passing any public examinations

  3. X's career-pattern was unorthodox, but successful

  4. X's family life was typical of the second half of the twentieth century

  5. X had four children

  6. X is a generous grandparent


It seems to me that only 2 and 5 are pure facts. Statements 1, 3, 4 and 6 all have at least an element of opinion, and they raise further questions. For example, I'd want to ask ‘What is a happy childhood and an unorthodox or successful career-pattern?’, and ‘What is typical family life in the second half of the twentieth century?’ Such notions are not factual: you and I might have quite different ideas of a happy childhood, and would not be able to agree on whether or not someone's childhood was happy. I might say that X was brought up wanting for nothing. You might reply that having one's material needs satisfied does not necessarily lead to happiness. If I nonetheless stuck to my view that X's childhood was happy and you stuck to yours that it was not, we would be forced to agree on one thing – that our views about X's childhood were merely opinion.

To return to Peterloo, a balder statement about what happened on that occasion might simply read, ‘At a large demonstration, eleven people were killed and many more injured, by cavalry from the local militia, who were attempting to keep order’. More questions are raised: for instance, what was the demonstration about? Were people hurt by weapons or by the crush? Were there any early signs of the demonstration getting out of hand? What was the public view of the incident at the time?

Another historical skill that produced heated reactions in the debate on the history curriculum is ‘empathy’. Historical empathy can be described as the attempt to shed the assumptions and perceptions of the present and understand what it must have been like to be alive at some time in the past, with the assumptions and perceptions instead of that particular period. This is important for understanding motivations, causes and consequences, which is essential if we are to form a coherent view of history. If we don't understand people's preoccupations, hopes and fears, their aspirations and expectations, and the pressures under which they go about their daily lives, we are hardly likely to be able to understand why they acted as they did. Why do peasants revolt? Why did people volunteer for the British army in the First World War?

An ex-serviceman who joined up in September 1914 at the age of 17 (he lied to the sergeant) told a group of schoolchildren, years later in the 1980s, that it was his one chance to travel. He knew – or thought he knew like so many others – it would be over by Christmas. It was a free holiday in France, a ‘holiday’ – as it turned out – in which he lost his leg to a shell. Losing a leg was a high price to pay for a holiday, but it probably saved his life, because he was invalided out of the army. The worst thing in the trenches, he said, was not the fear of the shells, but the rain. A first-hand account such as this facilitates empathy with at least this soldier, though he may or may not have been typical. Without the empathetic mental leap three-quarters of a century or indeed three-quarters of a millennium or three thousand years backwards into history, we cannot understand why people acted or events happened as they did. Even with empathy, we can never understand completely.

Exercise 6

You may like to know how the debate on school history in Britain was continued.

Read the extract below from an article by David Tytler. It was published in The Times on 29 December 1990, at the end of the year in which the three letters we looked at were published. First, note down whether it suggests that the controversial areas really were resolved. When you have decided that, jot down any questions that you consider still need to be answered:

Names, dates and places will be at the root of all history teaching in the national curriculum to be introduced into schools next September. It comes after a fierce debate between traditionalists and the progressive educationalists, who had argued that understanding was more important than simply learning facts.

… Duncan Graham, the [National Curriculum] council's chairman and chief executive, said: ‘Attainment will be firmly based on learning historical information. Pupils will need to acquire precise knowledge about key events, people and dates from each of the periods studied. The teaching of history has been the subject of intense debate for the last 18 months. This report provides the means of raising expectations and standards and establishes a balance between the knowledge all pupils should have and the skills they need to use it…’

… After criticism that the original curriculum concentrated too heavily on English history, the council now recommends ‘a broad and balanced history curriculum, based on the British Isles but with substantial attention to the rest of Europe and the world’.

From age five to seven children will learn from their own experience and family about events more distant in time and place. From seven to 11, lessons will be based on key events and everyday life during important periods in British history, though all children will have to study ancient Greece, local history, long-term themes such as ships and seafarers, and life in a society outside Europe. From 11 to 14, they will move on to the Roman Empire, Britain from 1066 to 1500, and the making of the United Kingdom. From 14 to 16, pupils will study a broad range of major themes in the 20th century history about Britain, Europe and the world.

(Tytler, D., The Times, 29 December 1990)


Perhaps the question of whether the controversies were resolved is best answered by considering the further questions you may have noted down. The questions below are only a sample of those that could be asked.

  • In this article in The Times, is the summary of the new curriculum accurate? How does the writer, David Tytler, know?

  • Was the curriculum described here implemented? Is it still in operation?

  • Did the public debate end, or did people continue to write to newspapers and argue?

  • Tytler says nothing about the post-16 curriculum. If this means that no curriculum was set for A-level and other history education for pupils after the age of 16, would you consider that decision to be defensible?

  • Did the curriculum-makers get it right?

Clearly, unless you can confidently answer Yes to all of them – which I certainly couldn't – the question of what history we should pass on remains a live one. As we have noted, questions such as these are relevant to the arts as a whole, not just to the study of history. while studying, you should frequently return to the question of evidence, what grounds there are for asserting something as fact, and what should properly be regarded simply as a personal opinion.

Exercise 7

I would like you to consider a particular war memorial in your own locality. Whom did it commemorate? Would you say that a choice had been made about who should be included, and perhaps therefore about who should not be included?


Of course there could be as many answers to this question as there are memorials. But your answer and mine are likely to have much in common – including, I suspect, observations about the omissions. Pacifists, on the whole, are not commemorated, and nor are those who died on the home front, for instance during the Second World War in aerial bombing. After the 1980s war between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands (Malvinas), there was controversy because, it was alleged, soldiers who had survived horrific attack and were wounded or maimed were not allowed to be seen at a commemorative service in London. The service was also criticised by some in Britain because it included prayers for the dead Argentinians as well as for dead Britons. Clearly there was no consensus (widespread agreement), either about the function of this commemoration or about who was to be commemorated and why.

It may be reasonable to suggest that the attitudes that determined people's opinions about this question were similar to the attitudes that determine people's views about history. Part of what people cared about may have been what they wanted to pass on to posterity. Should commemoration emphasise sacrifice and the common humanity of both sides, no longer enemies once a war is over? Should it emphasise heroism and victory? Should it emphasise the dead and play down the living? Should its purpose be simply to keep memory alive, or also to inspire future generations?

History depends on the evidence offered to posterity. And to an extent, those in power can influence what this is. If we only had war memorials, and evidence of events at the end of a war such as memorial services and victory parades, our view of that particular part of history would be likely to be national, patriotic and – if the war had been won – probably biased in favour of the government of the day.

However, as we study the history of periods closer to the present day, we find that there is usually an immense quantity and range of source material, all of which competes with the evidence chosen by the makers of memorials. More people can now bequeath more sources to future historians than ever before. Ensuring that something survives, as much as creating a specific memorial, is an act of commemoration, and we commemorate what we value in the past every time we commend the study of history.


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