Does History Content Matter?

As you’ll have seen, there’s been no blog entry for the last few days. This is because I’ve been at the Historical Association’s Annual Conference.

For me, these conferences act as an important part of my professional development. The most intriguing session I attended was one of the last, a plenary debate entitled “Does Content Matter?”.

Of course, all the speakers agreed that content does matter. Where debate lay was the extent to which students should be given a “map” of the past which includes key dates and episodes. I think that some of the folk who designed the social studies curricula of one or two of the States should have been present; some are so detailed and stuffed with “facts” that they seem to me to be deliberately designed to put children off history for life. No thought seems to have been put into what is significant, to which students should be exposed, and what, frankly , is more appropriate to Trivial Pursuit (is that game still played?).

For me, this is a really important question. Which events/ episodes are of such significance that they have to be there, and which aren’t?

One of the speakers suggested that such a map was impossible to create – each person should come up with their own map of significant events, as the list was an entirely subjective one. I personally disagree with this – I think students should be given an overview map of the past, which allows them to have a shared framework into which they can slot additional knowledge and ideas. For example, students in England should be given a rough idea of what the Medieval period looked like, even if this is as crude as understanding that this was the period in which castles, barons, knights, cathedrals and monasteries flourished. 

For many people, that will be all they need to take an interest in their environment, and to understand a little of our political herritage (how can you understand anything about Magna Carta if you’ve no idea what a “baron” was?). For others, this foundational knowledge will be a tool to allow them to learn more for themselves about the period. If truth be told, this slim body of knowledge was about all I had of the Medieval period for many years, even whilst I was studying Greek and Roman society at undergraduate level at Durham University. But it was enough until I wanted to take it further; and it enable me to participate in that bit of our shared understanding of our past.

I think this idea of a shared understanding is important – and certainly not because it turns us into patriotic Englishmen ( a key part of our past shamefully lay in the Slave Trade, which probably led to as many premature deaths as the Holocaust). But it does enable us to know what we are thinking of when we are talking about the Medieval period, for example, or the Tudor period, the Eighteenth century and so on. If we don’t have this, historical discussions will become difficult.

Agreeing that there should be a shared map is the easy bit, however. If I were to draw up a list of significant events/ episodes that “every child should know”, it would be very different from someone else’s. it would also be fairly different from my own if I were to do the same excercise a fortnight later. This is especially true given my passion for world history, and the importance I attach to it. Personally, I don’t think you can have a real understanding of British history without knowing something of Chinese history (no, seriously!). Does this mean that I would have every child learning the names of the Chinese dynasties (and their dates) by rote?

Hmmm, now there’s an idea…

Anyhow, I’ve run out of time.. more on this another day.


By Peter Britton