Nicolas Kinloch: What is History in Schools For?





[Nicolas Kinloch teaches history at the Netherhall School & Sixth Form College, Cambridge.]

Let’s come straight to the point. What is history in schools for? I ask because the answer, though currently widely debated, seems to be far from obvious to our rulers, or even to some who teach the subject. I’m not wholly surprised: I myself don’t believe most of the reasons that are usually produced.

A firm favourite with government at the moment is the idea of ‘identity’ or – if you want to be really multicultural and daring – ‘identities’. In this view, an essentially fissiparous society is held together by allowing every group to see where it ‘fits’ into the overall narrative. Possibly: though it seems to me that this is at least as likely to focus pupils on what divides them, rather than what unites them.

It wouldn’t be the first example of well-meant policies resulting in the opposite of what was intended. Years of studying Nazism haven’t necessarily resulted in any great conversion to the need for mutual tolerance and understanding. As successive ambassadors from the Federal Republic have complained, a consequence for some pupils has instead been the legitimising of anti-German sentiment. This is what happens when history and citizenship get confused....

The real problem, it seems to me, is that education has lost its direction. We once took it for granted that everyone ought to know some history, just as they ought to know some science, or be able to read, write or manipulate numbers. It wasn’t that it was ‘useful’, or contributed directly to the gross domestic product. It was simply one of the distinguishing characteristics of a civilised human being.

Nowadays most educational leaders are terrified of this sort of value judgement, if they understand it at all. They know all about the latest educational fad; they know all about ‘managing’ [by which they mean skewing] data; they’re expert at pretending that all will be well once the next expensive initiative has been implemented. But you try asking them what it’s all for.

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