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MONTHLY BLOG 24, HISTORY AS THE STAPLE OF A CIVIC EDUCATION

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.

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MONTHLY BLOG 23, WHY DO POLITICIANS UNDERVALUE HISTORY IN SCHOOLS ?

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

Isn’t it shocking that, in the UK, school-children can give up the study of History at the age of 14? Across Europe today, only Albania (it is claimed) shares that ignoble distinction with Britain. A strange pairing. Who knows? Perhaps the powers-that-be in both countries believe that their national histories are so culturally all-pervasive that children will learn them by osmosis. Perhaps Britons in particular are expected to imbibe with their mother’s milk the correct translation of Magna Carta?

Despite my unease at David Cameron’s embarrassing displays of historical ignorance, my complaint is not a party political one. As a Labour supporter, I’ve long been angry with successive Labour Education Ministers between 1997 and 2010, who have presided uncaringly over the long-running under-valuing of History. (Their lack of enthusiasm contrasts with continuing student demand, which indeed is currently booming).

For critics, the subject is thought to focus myopically upon dates, and upon kings, queens and battles. Students are believed to find the subject ‘boring’; ‘irrelevant’; ‘useless’. How can learning about the ‘dead past’ prepare them for the bright future?

New Labour, born out of discontent with Old Labour, was too easily tempted into fetishing ‘the new’. For a while, the party campaigned under a vacuous slogan, which urged: ‘The future, not the past’. Very unhistorical; completely unrealistic. It’s like saying ‘Watch the next wave, forget about the tides’. Yet time’s seamless flow means that the future always emerges from the past, into which today’s present immediately settles.

It seems that the undervaluing of studying the past stems from a glib utilitarianism. Knowledge is sub-divided into many little pieces, which are then termed economically ‘useful’ or the reverse. Charles Clarke as Labour Education Minister in 2003 summed up this viewpoint. He was reported as finding the study of Britain’s early history to be purely ‘ornamental’ and unworthy of state support. In fact, he quickly issued a clarification. It transpired that it was the ‘medieval’ ideal of the university as a community of scholars that Clarke considered to be obsolescent, not the study of pre-Tudor history as such.1

Yet this clarification made things worse, not better. Clarke had no sympathy for the value of open-ended learning, either for individuals or for society at large. The very idea of scholars studying to expand and transmit knowledge – let alone doing so in a community – was anathema. Clarke declared that Britain’s education system should be designed chiefly to contribute to the British economy. It was not just History, he implied, but all ‘unproductive’ subjects that should be shunned.

The well-documented reality that Britain’s Universities have an immensely positive impact upon the British economy2 was lost in the simplistic attempt to subdivide knowledge into its ‘useful’ and ‘useless’ components.

By the way, it’s this sceptical attitude which has pressurised the Universities, much against their better judgement, into the current Research Excellence Framework’s insistence on rating the economic impact of academic research. An applied engineer’s treatise on How to build a Bridge becomes obviously ‘useful’. But a pure mathematician’s proof of a new theorem seems ‘pointless’.

How does contempt for learning originate in a political party whose leaders today are all graduates? It seems to stem from an imaginary workerism. Politicians without ‘real’ working-class roots invoke a plebeian caricature, as a sort of consolation – or covert apology. Give us the machine-tools, and leave effete book-learning for the toffs! They can waste their time, chatting about ancient Greece but we can build a locomotive.
'Crewe WorksÕ, LMS poster, 1937.

Illustration 1: The male world of skilled railway engineering, proudly displayed in a 1937 poster from Crewe © National Railway Museum, 2012

Such attitudes, however, betray the earnest commitment of the historic Labour movement to the value of learning. From the Chartists in the 1830s, the Mechanics Institutes, the Workers Educational Society, the trade unions’ educational programmes, the great tradition of working-class autodidacts, the campaigns for improved public education, up to and including Labour’s creation of the Open University in the 1960s, all have worked to extend education to the masses.
2012-10 Marsden (Yks) Mechanics Institute 1860

Illustration 2: Mechanics Institutes, like this 1860 edifice from the textile mill-town of Marsden, West Yorkshire, offered education to Britain’s unschooled workers. While not all had the time or will to respond, the principle of adult education was launched. In Marsden this fine landmark building was saved from demolition by local protest in the 1980s and reopened, after restoration, in 1991. © English Heritage 2012

No doubt, educational drives require constant renewal. In Britain from 1870 onwards, the state joined in, initially legislating for compulsory education for all children to the age of 10. And globally, similar long-term campaigns are working slowly, as education reforms do, to banish all illiteracy and to extend and deepen learning for all. It’s a noble cause, needed today as much as ever.

Knowledge meanwhile has its own seamless flow. It doesn’t always advance straightforwardly. At times, apparently fruitful lines of enquiry have turned out to be erroneous or even completely dead ends. Many eighteenth-century scientists, like the pioneer Joseph Priestley, wrongly believed in the theory of ‘phlogiston’ (the fire-principle) to explain the chemistry of combustion and oxidisation. Nonetheless from the welter of speculation and experimentation came major discoveries in the identification of oxygen and hydrogen.3  Today, it may possibly be that super-string theory, which holds sway in particle physics, is leading into another blind alley.4  But, either way, it won’t be politicians who decide. It’s the hurly burly of research cross-tested by speculation, experiment, debate, and continuing research that will adjudicate.

There’s an interesting parallel for History in the long-running debates about the usefulness of knowledge within mathematics. The ‘applied’ side of the subject is easy to defend, as constituting the language of science. ‘Pure’ maths’ on the other hand …? But divisions between the abstract and the applied are never static. Some initially abstruse mathematical formulations have had major applications in later generations. For example, the elegant beauty of Number Theory, originally considered as the height of abstraction, did not stop it from being later used for deciphering codes, in public-key cryptography.5

On the other hand, proof of the infinity of primes has (as yet) no practical application. Does that mean that this speculative field of study should be halted, as ‘useless’? Of course not.

My argument, in pursuing the ‘usefulness’ debates, seems to be drifting away from History. But not really. The mind-set that deplores the ‘useless’ Humanities would also reject the abstraction of the ‘pure’ sciences. But try building a functioning steam locomotive, without any knowledge of history or of formalised mathematics or of the science of mechanised motion, let alone the technology of iron and steel production. It couldn’t be done today. And we know from history that our ever-inventive ancestors didn’t do it in the Stone Age either.

1 Charles Clarke reported in The Guardian, 9 May 2003, with clarification in later edition on same date.

2 The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) commissioned an independent report, which calculated that Britain’s Universities contributed at least £3.3bn to UK businesses in the 2010-11 academic year, as part of a much wider economic impact, both direct and indirect: see www.hefce/news/newsarchive 23 July 2012.

3 J.B. Conant (ed.), The Overthrow of Phlogiston Theory: The Chemical Revolution of 1775-89 (Cambridge, Mass., 1950).

4 For criticisms, see L. Smolin, The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next (New York, 2006); and P. Woit, Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law (2006).

5 See the debates after G.H. Hardy’s case for abstract mathematics in his A Mathematician’s Apology (1940): see ‘Pure Mathematics’ in www.wikipedia.

  • My November Blog will discuss the relevance of History not only for economics but also for civics.
  • And my December Blog will consider how to ensure that all students study History to the age of 16.

For further discussion, see

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