If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2012)

How do we champion (not merely defend) the study of History in schools and Universities? Against those who wrongly claim that the subject is not commercially ‘useful’.

Here are three recommendations. Firstly, we should stress the obvious: that a knowledge of history and an interconnected view of past and present (cause and consequence) is essential to the well-functioning not only of every individual but also of every society. The subject roots people successfully in time and place. Individuals with lost memories become shadowy, needing help and compassion. Communities with broken memories, for example through forced uprooting, exhibit plentiful signs of trauma, often handed down through successive generations. Civics as well as economics thus demands that people have a strong sense of a sustained past. That entails learning about the history their own and other societies, in order to gain an understanding of the human condition. All knowledge comes from the past and remains essential in the present. Nothing could be more ‘useful’ than history, viewed broadly.

december003The second recommendation links with the first. We should define the subject as the study not of the ‘dead past’ but of ‘living history’.

In fact, there’s a good case for either usage. Historians often like to stress the many differences between past and present. That’s because studying the contrasts sets a good challenge – and also because an awareness of ‘otherness’ alerts students not simply to project today’s attitudes and assumptions backwards in time. The quotation of choice for the ‘difference’ protagonists comes from an elegiac novel, which looked back at England in 1900 from the vantage point of a saddened older man in the 1940s. Entitled The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley (1953), it began with the following words: The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

It’s an evocative turn of phrase that has inspired book titles.1 It’s also widely quoted, often in the variant form of ‘the past is another country’. These phrases draw their potency from the fact that other places can indeed be different – sometimes very much so. It is also true that numerous historic cultures are not just different but have physically vanished, leaving imperfect traces in the contemporary world. ‘Ancient Ur of the Chaldees is covered by the sands of southern Iraq. … And the site of the once-great Alexandrian port of Herakleion lies four miles off-shore, under the blue seas of the Mediterranean’.2

december002On the other hand, while some elements of history are ‘lost’, past cultures are not necessarily inaccessible to later study. Just as travellers can make an effort to understand foreign countries, so historians and archaeologists have found many ingenious ways to analyse the ‘dead past’.

There are common attributes of humanity that can be found everywhere. We all share a living human history.3 Ancient cultures may have vanished but plenty of their ideas, mathematics, traditions, religions, and languages survive and evolve. Anyone who divides a minute into sixty seconds, an hour into sixty minutes, and a circle into 360 degrees, is paying an unacknowledged tribute to the mathematics of ancient Babylon.4

december001So there is an alternative quotation of choice for those who stress the connectivity of past and present. It too comes from a novelist, this time from the American Deep South, who was preoccupied by the legacies of history. William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun (1951) made famous his dictum that:
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

No doubt there are circumstances when such sentiments are dangerous. There are times when historic grievances have to be overcome. But, before reconciliation, it’s best to acknowledge the reality of such legacies, rather than dismissing them. As it happens, that was the argument of Barack Obama when giving a resonant speech in 2008 about America’s festering ethnic divisions.5

Historians rightly observe that history contains intertwined elements of life and death. But when campaigning for the subject, it’s best to highlight the elements that survive through time. That is not romanticising history, since hatreds and conflicts are among the legacies from the past. It’s just a good method for convincing the doubters. Since we are all part of living history, for good and ill, we all need to study the subject in all its complexity.

Thirdly and finally: historians must make common cause with champions of other subjects. Obvious allies come from the Arts and Humanities. But we should appeal especially to the Pure Sciences. They too fail to meet the test of immediate economic ‘usefulness’. There is no instant value in a new mathematical equation. No immediate gain from the study of String Theory in physics. (Indeed, some physicists argue that this entire field is turning into a blind alley).6 But the pure sciences need essential scope for creativity and theoretical innovation. Some new ideas have become ‘useful’ (or dangerous) only many years after the initial intellectual breakthrough. Others have as yet no direct application. And some may never have.

Humans, however, are capable of thinking long. It is one of our leading characteristics. So we must not be bullied into judging the value of subjects to study solely or even chiefly in terms of short-term criteria. The Pure Sciences, alongside the Arts and Humanities, must combat this blinkered approach. There are multiple values in a rounded education, combining the theoretical and the practical. In the case of History, the blend must include knowledge as well as skills. In the sciences, it must include the theoretical as well as the applied. One without the other will fail. And that in the long-term is not remotely useful. In fact, it’s positively dangerous. History confirms the long-term usefulness of the sciences. Let the scientists repay the compliment by joining those who reject crude utilitarianism – hence in turn championing the study of History.

1 Notably by David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge, 1983)

2 Quoting from an essay by myself, entitled ‘Cities in Time’, in Peter Clark (ed.), Oxford Handbook on Cities in World History (Oxford, forthcoming May 2013).

3 See Ivar Lissner, The Living Past (1957), transl. from German So Habt Ihr Geleb = literally Thus Have They Lived; and my personal response in PJC Discussion-Point Nov. 2011.

4 For the social and intellectual context of Babylonian mathematics, see Eleonor Robson, Mathematics in Ancient Iraq: A Social History (Princeton, 2008).

5 For Barack Obama’s speech ‘A More Perfect Union’, delivered at Philadelphia, PA, 18 March 2008: see video on

6 See references to the usefulness or otherwise of pure maths in PJC Blog Oct. 2012.

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 25 please click here


If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2012)

Politicians have a duty to attend to civics as well as to economics. Indeed, we all do. So talking about whether the study of History is ‘useful’ for the economy is a very partial way of approaching an essential component of human’s collective living. We all need to be rooted in space and time. Politicians should therefore be advocating the study of History as the essential contribution to individual and social connectedness. In a word, civics in the full meaning of the term. Not just learning how to fill in a ballot paper – but learning how communities develop over time, how they cope with conflict and with conflict-resolution, and, incidentally, how they struggle to create truly fair and democratic societies.

Praise of the study of History as a means of learning essential skills is all very well. Lots of useful things are indeed achieved by this means. People learn to evaluate complex sources, to make and debate critical judgments based upon careful assessments of often contradictory evidence, and to understand continuity and change over the long term. So far, so good.

Yet it is seriously inadequate to recommend a subject only in terms of the skills it teaches and not in terms of its core content. It’s like (say) recommending learning to sing in order to strengthen the vocal chords and to improve lung capacity. Or (as the ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi notoriously did in 1988) recommending a visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum in order to enjoy a nice egg salad in its ‘ace caff’ – with some very valuable art objects attached.
november004By the way, so notorious has that advertisement become that it is strangely difficult to find the originals image on the web. It seems to have been self-censored by both the Museum and the ad agency – probably in shame.

When recommending History, there is a crucial Knowledge agenda at stake as well as a supporting Skills agenda. Of course, the two are inextricably linked. Historical skills without historical Knowledge are poorly learned and quickly forgotten. But learning History has a greater and essential value purely in its own right. It is not ‘just’ a route to Skills but a subject of all-encompassing and thrilling importance.

All of human life is there; and all humans need access to this shared reservoir of knowledge about our shared past. People always glean some outline information by one means or another. They pick up myths and assumptions and bits and pieces from their families and communities.

But people learn more and better when they learn systematically: about the history of the country that they live in; and about the comparative history of other countries, both nearby and far away; and about how a myriad of different developments around the world fit into a long-term human history, which includes continuities as well as change.

Needless to say, these perceptions are hardly new. ‘Histories make men wise’, as Francis Bacon long ago observed. Thinkers and doers from classical Greece to Winston Churchill have agreed and recommended its study.
november003Why then has the subject matter of History been comparatively undervalued in recent years? It can’t just be the power of the Skills agenda and the influence of ministers fussing about every subject’s contribution to the economy.

Nor can it be that History teachers are ‘boring’ and that they teach students nothing but the dates of kings, queens and battles. Ofsted report after Ofsted report has stated otherwise. The subject is considered to be generally well and imaginatively conveyed. Moreover, the sizeable number of students choosing to take the subject, even once it has ceased to be compulsory, shows that there is a continuing human urge to understand the human past.

Nonetheless, the public reputation of History as a subject of study is currently poor. It is often dismissed as the ‘dead past’. Why should students need to know about things that have long gone? The pace of technological change in particular seems to point people ‘onwards’, not backwards. What can the experience of the older generation, who notoriously have trouble coping with shiny new gadgets, teach the adept and adaptable young?

Well, there are many answers to such rhetoric.

In the first place, things that are ‘dead’ are not necessarily lacking in interest. It is valuable to stretch the mind to learn about vanished cultures, as some indeed have. Impressively, archaeologists, historians, palaeontologists, biologists and language experts have together discovered much about the long evolution of our own species – often from the skimpiest bits of evidence. It’s a highly relevant story about adaptation and survival, often in hostile climes.

Meanwhile, there is a second answer too. It’s completely fallacious to assume that everything in the past is ‘dead’. Much – very much – survives and develops through time, to create a living history, which embraces everyone alive today. The human genome, for example, is an evolving inheritance from the past. So are the dynamic histories, languages and cultures that we have so variously created.

We need more long-term accounts of how such things continue, evolve and change over the very long term. The recent stress by historians upon close focus studies, looking at one period or great event in depth, has been fruitful. Yet it should not exclude long-term narratives. They help to frame the details and to fit the immediate complexities into bigger pictures. (My own suggestion for a secondary-schools course on ‘The Peopling of Britain’, in which everyone living in Britain has a stake, is published in the November issue of History Today).1  In sum, we all need to learn systematically – and to continue learning – about our own and other people’s histories. It’s a lifetime project, for individuals and for citizens.

• My December Blog will consider further how historians can advance the public case for studying History.

1 P.J. Corfield, ‘Our Island Stories – The Peopling of Britain’, History Today, vol. 62, issue 11 (Nov. 2012), pp. 52-3.

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 24 please click here