Some Ideas about Teaching



Facts and the Teaching of History


QUOTE(Christine @ Dec 28 2004, 03:12 PM)

Very interesting Andrew but why was the London Brighton railway able to be built in 1841...


QUOTE(Andrew Field @ Dec 28 2004, 06:35 PM)

Erm... you do realise I was agreeing with you about dates on their own being of no real use?

When I was reading for my degree, EH Carr's What is History? was all the rage. In his first chapter ('The Historian and His Facts') Carr - very correctly - argues that 'the belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively independent of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy'. Like a journalist, he explains, an historian selects and arranges his facts in such as way as to influence opinion. 'the facts speak', he wrote, 'only when the historian calls on them'.

So far, spot on. But then he felt the need to add:

QUOTE (EH Carr, What is History, 1961)

Let us take a look at the process by which a mere fact about the past is transformed into a fact of history. At Stalybridge Wakes in 1850, a vendor of gingerbread, as the result of some petty dispute, was deliberately kicked to death by an angry mob. Is this a fact of history ? A year ago I should unhesitatingly have said `no'. It was recorded by an eye-witness in some little-known memoirs; but I had never seen it judged worthy of mention by any historian. A year ago Dr Kitson Clark cited it in his Ford lectures in Oxford. Does this make it into a historical fact ? Not, I think, yet. Its present status, I suggest, is that it has been proposed for membership of the select club of historical facts. It now awaits a seconder and sponsors. It may be that in the course of the next few years we shall see this fact appearing first in footnotes, then in the text, of articles and books about nineteenth-century England, and that in twenty or thirty years' time it may be a well-established historical fact. Alternatively, nobody may take it up, in which case it will relapse into the limbo of unhistorical facts about the past from which Dr Kitson Clark has gallantly attempted to rescue it.   

The only problem with this, of course, is that it is sh*te, not least in that - in amongst all the nonsense about select clubs of historical facts and proposers and sponsors (language which sets EH Carr firmly in his upper-class London world) - we are told that there are 'unhistorical facts from the past'!!!

In this respect, EH Carr stood on the cusp of modern history. He could see that all facts are relative, and that there is no such thing as using a fact except as part of a personal interpretation (there is no such thing as an absolute fact). But he could not bring himself to accept the logical concomitant - that all facts are equal.

For EH Carr, as most historians of his days, slowly clambering as they were out of the Whig interpretation of British history, there was a core of 'important' historical facts (e.g. 1066, Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the Peloponnesian Wars, the Russian Revolution) which everybody OUGHT to know about. Facts like the Stalybridge riot, although they occurred in the past, were therefore 'unhistorical' because they were unimportant. The newspaper journalists who go out and quiz a few people about a random series of historical facts (and find them wanting) assume the same thing.

But who says that the Battle of Hastings is a more important fact than the opening of the London Brighton Railway in 1841? It certainly isn't more important for the pupil who is studying the Industrial Revolution. Neither is it more important if you believe that underlying social and economic developments are more crucial to progress than surface political events - it is perfectly arguable that 1066 changed the nobs at the top, but it actually affected the long-term development of the English people very little.

However, the issue even goes beyond that of 'use what for'.

We use history to understand and enlighten our present position. Given that our society has grown out of the past, if we wish to understand the present or guide its future development, we need to understand the processes which have brought us to where we are now. However, as our society changes and develops, it is inevitable that our appreciation of what is important must change also. For EH Carr, writing in 1961, from his particular dreaming tower, the world was understandable in terms of a certain body of historical facts. So we should not be surprised, I suppose, that he felt that these were the important facts of history, and that everyone ought to know them.

But we live in a post-modernist, multi-ethnic, multi-faith world nowadays, and the body of facts needed by pupils who live in it MUST NECESSARILY be different. To take an obvious example, where my teaching of the growth of the British Empire in the 18th century used to emphasise Clive and the battle of Plassey, nowadays it focuses on the slave trade and events such as the Amistad affair. This isn't just a matter of relevance. It's a matter of what we need to know to understand our world.

And since out world is continually changing (and ever-faster), the body of facts we need to know to properly apprehend it must be continually changing too. That is why this right-wing attempt to impose a body of facts as 'key historical facts' is such a conservative thing; it genuinely is an attempt to hold onto a vision of life which is fading away.

And who should be in charge of what should be in the body of historical facts we communicate to the pupils? That, of course, is the political question. The Daily Mail would say the Daily Mail, but its list would merely reflect its white, middle-class, elderly, right-wing readership - its list is going to be utterly irrelevant for most of the pupils in the Britain of the future. The government - absolutely not and - to be fair - the government has consistently eschewed the creation of such a list. The Historical Association? In the early 1980s the HA did produce a list of 60 topics every child ought to know about, but they were almost lynched when they tried to sell it to teachers.

So - what about the teacher? What about the one who has studied history, and who knows his children and what they need. I'd leave it to him, actually, to decide whether his pupils need most to know about the opening of the London Brighton line in 1841, or Caesar's Gallic Wars. (At this point, of course, most Daily Mail readers will be having an apoplexy, so I'd better stop.)

To bowdlerise:


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all historical facts are created equal, that they are endowed by their researcher with certain essential utilities, that among these are illustration, exemplification and the proof of hypothesis. -- That whenever any Form of curriculum becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of historians to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new interpretation, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing it in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect its accuracy and reliability.

Posted on: Dec 29 2004, 10:57 AM





To cite this page, use:   CLARE, JOHN D. (2004/2006), 'Facts and the teaching of History',  at Greenfield History Site (