Why teach and study history

In a previous post Neville Morley commented on the reasons for teaching history. It is worth repeating them in brief here. First of all, it provides critical skills, such as critical reading and analysis. Secondly, it helps us understand the way the world works. History draws together politics, economics, sociology etc. and studies their development and interaction over time. Thirdly, the study of history is a means of understanding how people work. As we are historical animals, we develop a sense of identity from the past and, so it shapes our decisions and actions.

In this basic analysis we can add several other reasons for the teaching of history. For me the predominant motive is to reform the minds of the ‘students’ . Their skill of critical analysis is fundamental for the political, economic, cultural, religious and social assessment of the world we live in. When our youngest citizens develop historical eyes and ears, governments, churches and other institutions will not be able to direct them. In a perfect historically-aware world citizens will safeguard their rights and fulfill their obligations, taking into consideration the common benefit. And, if you believe in the repetition of history, knowledge of the past will protect them from future mistakes.

However, the reasons to teach history do not coincide with the reasons to study it. I cannot think of any student who will choose the topic in order to become a better citizen. These are just fantasies of an idealistic teacher. Instead, there are more possibilities that someone will become a historian for more individualistic motives. In my case, my love of history, when I was 14 years old, developed out of my perverse imagination of the Greek revolution. At the time I literally fell in love with its uncontested military leader, Kolokotronis. I devoured all the books in the library about his life. I watched the movie about his trial over and over again. I learned by heart the circumstances and outcome of his battles. And then, I started dreaming that I was part of his entourage, that I was wearing fustanella and tsarouchia (white pleated skirt and pom-pom shoes), that I was carrying obsolete weapons and that I went around the camp riding on a white horse. I was hooked, if not incurably addicted!

So, if we wish to provide our students with critical skills that that will turn them into thinking men or women and valuable citizens, we need to excite their imagination.

What do you think?

Economic historian and numismatic consultant


  1. In my opinion history IS useful for the reasons mentioned in this analysis. And students are not studying history beacuse of these reasons, but this is irrelevant. True, these are “fantasies of an idealistic teacher”. But keep in mind that a student may choose this topic for a number of reasons, none of which may actually be serious! Students may choose to study history for any reason they want. But the important thing is how the teacher will teach history to his/her students, for whatever reasons these students have chosen history. History does make good citizens when it is taught correctly, and it does not matter that students do not enter the classroom with this aspiration.

  2. Constantina, I agree with your analysis, and with the contrast between the reasons that teachers may have and the reasons that students may have. Indeed, it may be hard for the students to appreciate the teachers’ reasons until they have studied quite a lot of history, and had quite a lot of experience of life, themselves. So one question is, Is there a connection between the two sets of reasons, or is it just a lucky co-incidence that teachers and students are differently motivated to engage in the same activity?

    I think that there is a connection, but it is rather indirect. People do get excited by the past, when it is well-presented. Witness the crowds at Stonehenge with their audio guides, lapping up the little information that we have about its construction and use, or the audiences for television programmes. Why do people get excited? I think it is because we can empathise with people from the past. We could have been them, even though we could not now become them because we are aware of things of which they had no inkling. The past of Martians could not excite us in the same way, because we could never have been them.

    That makes the connection. We can learn about ourselves, and make ourselves wiser, by considering other lives at other times. We explore possibilities in our current context by considering actualities in earlier contexts, actualities which have key features, but not everything, in common with our current situation. We could have faced the questions that people faced in the past. So we can learn something, although not straightforward answers to our current questions, by reflecting on the decisions that were taken in the past and on the outcomes. The same effect can be produced by reading novels, but history has extra psychological impact because it actually happened. On the other hand, history is constrained by the evidence, so novelists can explore more possibilities.

    Or is there a closer, or a stronger, connection, between the reasons for teaching history and the reasons for learning it?

    • Richard,
      in an ideal world I would havve liked the reasons for teaching to be the same as the reasons for learning. I like your views on empathy. Maybe I should strive in my classes to create more empathy. Sometimes we take for granted that the students are interested in the topic the same way as we are.

  3. Ah, but how far to push the empathy thing, and how to define it? We are, of course, getting into Verstehen territory. I am reminded of Max Weber’s comment at the beginning of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, that one does not have to be Caesar in order to understand Caesar. But he does acknowledge that Nacherlebbarkeit can be useful.

    On the other hand, perhaps one should not demand such philosophical precision when the question is the practical one of the techne of teaching history.

    I am not sure that I would be too worried about different motives on different sides of the desk. After all, we get along well enough elsewhere in life by having different motives to participate in the same transaction. In the marketplace, the seller wants the money and the buyer wants the goods.

  4. I’m not sure whether this is cynical or idealistic, or a bit of both, but I regard my task as, at least in part, subversion: the students (or some of them, anyway) are simply here to jump through hoops in order to get ‘their’ 2.1 – but that means I get to mess with their minds and open their eyes to the world, whether they like it or not.

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