Max Hastings on History Teaching

by Harry on January 9, 2006

Max Hastings had an interesting piece in the Guardian during the break attacking the comments on History teaching in the recent QCA report. I haven’t read the report, so can’t evaluate his critique, but I can say that he gets one thing exactly right.

He singles out the ‘alarm call’ about the

perceived “lack of relevance” of history to pupils’ future working lives. This echoes the notorious remarks of Charles Clarke, when education secretary, dismissing medieval and classical studies.

and rightly knocks on the head the idea that everything in the school curriculum should be relevant to our working lives:

At the weekend, I glanced at some of my old school essays. The questions seem interesting: “Should one think of Henry II as a lawless and arbitrary monarch, or as the founder of an orderly legal and administrative system?”; “Why did Edward I succeed in Wales and fail in Scotland?”; “Can anything be said in favour of James I’s foreign policy?”
Even in 1961, one could scarcely argue that familiarity with such themes contributed much to employability. They were no more “relevant” to middle-class white teenagers then than to schoolchildren of West Indian or Muslim origins now. We addressed them, first, because education is properly about learning to think, and objectively to assess evidence; second, so that we knew something about a broad sweep of the history of the society to which, whether by birth or migration, we belonged.

He’s right to attack the utilitarian approach he identifies to the curriculum.

So much of what is worthwhile can only be learned (by most of us if taught) and is not directly, or even in many cases indirectly, useful to our marketability or the economy in general. Parents with cultural resources time and money can often compensate for the failure of schools to teach these things to their kids; the utilitarian approach impoverishes the educational experiences of the disadvantaged most.

He’s also right that we should know something about the broad sweep of the history of the society to which we belong. And he’s also right that teaching that broad sweep will lead to the development of a cultural identity.

But that is a different matter from aiming to produce a particular sentiment or identity in children, which he does hint that he approves of (not least by his reference to History teaching in the US). I’m always surprised when I talk to American history teachers (left or right) how common it is that they think part of their aim is to produce some sort of patriotic sentiment in their students; and this is common ground in the culture war debates over history standards here. I worry that teaching for patriotism, or for any kind of sentiment, distorts the intellectual environment and jeopardizes the academic goals which Hastings endorses. Obviously showing this requires more examples than a blog post warrants, but think about individuals like Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, and Richard Nixon, and how differently you would teach about them if you wanted simply to educate the children in how objectively to assess evidence and to think, than if you wanted to produce positive feelings and attachments (impossible, probably, in Nixon’s case, but maybe requiring some strategic silences in the cases of Martin Luther King and Thomas Jefferson).

My own favourite example is the way the Montgomery bus boycott is treated in textbooks and by teachers. My own daughter was first taught about the boycott when she was 6—she came home and told me (what she had been told) that Rosa Parks was a “tired old black lady” who refused to give up her seat on the bus. I think this myth (which in various forms infiltrates many if not most High School textbooks in US history) does a good job of engaging the emotional sympathies of young people, but a terrible job of enabling them to see the evidence about causal processes at work. I discuss the particular example in more detail here and also in my new book (US; UK); so pervasive are the Rosa Parks myths that one of the referees of my new book said that although he was a long-time contributor to the Highlander School he had not previously been aware of Rosa Parks’s connection.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to promote particular loyalties and affect without jeopardizing the more academic goals Hastings endorses, just that it is at best difficult, and that there will always be a temptation to manage the trade offs to the detriment of the academic lessons; a temptation which is more likely to be indulged if History teachers see promoting sentiment as part of their mission.

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01.15.06 at 1:51 pm



Tracy W 01.09.06 at 4:50 pm

I think it is important to teach history – not for its practical use in employment but for its practical use as a citizen.

And for this reason I think that inhabitants of the British commonwealth (as well as Brits) should be taught British history too, as well as their own country’s, as English political history has had such a strong impact on our political institutions. Arguably US citizens should learn it as well but you do run into problems of time at some point.

For example, I don’t know how much sense you can make of the current debate over The Treaty of Waitangi in NZ without knowing either about the Treaty of Waitangi and its history, or about the political ideas, such as one-person-one-vote arising from British history.

History is always going to be political however. What other method do we have for deciding on a curriculum?


sd 01.09.06 at 4:54 pm

But it seems to me that this is one of the reasons that schools revisit the same topics again and again throughout the years that any given student is in school. Yes, its good for adults to have a full and complete understanding of historical events and actors, the good the bad and the ugly. But why assume that its always beneficial to encounter those shades of gray the first time out?

I see nothing wrong with a world in which young children are taught something like a mixture of history and myth – mixing just enough historical fact to get them oriented to the past with (factually accurate, but deliberately chosen) anecdotes that instill moral sentiment and a narrative sense for important historical themes. As long as those same children, when they reach high school and college, are exposed to counter facts, different points of view, etc.

You bring up the example of your 6 year old daughter. What would you have the schools do? Launch into a detailed discussion of the legal strategies employed by civil rights groups in the 1950s and 1960s to instigate test cases that could be brought through the federal court system? Do you think she would understand, much less retain, any of that? Do you think she’d be a better person for it? Hardly. There will be plenty of time to revisit these events later in her school career.


Neel Krishnaswami 01.09.06 at 5:31 pm

Obviously showing this requires more examples than a blog post warrants, but think about individuals like Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, and Richard Nixon, and how differently you would teach about them if you wanted simply to educate the children in how objectively to assess evidence and to think, than if you wanted to produce positive feelings and attachments (impossible, probably, in Nixon’s case, but maybe requiring some strategic silences in the cases of Martin Luther King and Thomas Jefferson).

Actually, it’s very easy, and very common, to make a reasonably accurate appraisal of Nixon or Jefferson part of a process of inculcuating patriotic sentiment.

First, you identify things like separation of powers, constitutional authority, and due process of law as the underlying reasons why patriotic sentiment is justified, and then you show how Nixon broke those traditions. Then, you point to Woodward and Bernstein and the importance of a free press in combatting arbitrary authority, and then you talk about the wisdom of the First Amendment. Then you connect it to the Zenger trial and the importance of trial by jury and civic participation in government to resist tyranny. And presto, Nixon is part of the patriotic narrative, as a bad example.

Likewise with Jefferson. You teach the kids to take the rhetoric of liberty as normative, and then ask them to judge Jefferson’s actions, and to compare him with (say) Washington, who did emancipate all his slaves upon his death, or Ben Franklin, who was an out-and-out-abolitionist. If the kids are in high school, you talk about Sally Hemmings, too, to make the total power of the slaver over the slave as explicit and frightening as possible.

I don’t see why this is wrong, or troubling. This is basically how I was educated, in a pretty conservative part of South Carolina.


aretino 01.09.06 at 5:34 pm

Montgomery bus boycott?


aretino 01.09.06 at 5:38 pm

Selma was a voting rights campaign.


harry b 01.09.06 at 5:42 pm

I knew that aretino; fixed. Good job I’m not the history teacher (I’d be better at that than at the spelling, though).


garymar 01.09.06 at 5:48 pm

Americans have no ethnic identity. What makes us American is a more-or-less conscious upholding of certain basic ideas about governance and human rights. Not that we haven’t violated these ideals repeatedly, especially in these dark days; but holding them is what makes us American. So it’s only natural that both left and right-wing historians agree for the need to inculcate patriotism in the young. This is all part of our ‘civil religion’.


Syd Webb 01.09.06 at 6:22 pm

“Can anything be said in favour of James I’s foreign policy?”

He kept us out of the 30 Years War. Uh, for certain values of ‘us’.

The “sentiment in children” issue is an interesting one. My seven year old has inherited a rather Manichaean world view from my wife. It is my role to play devil’s advocate, to introduce facts that challenge a one-sided view of contemporary political figures as either ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’.

I must say I feel some discomforate with the teaching of myths in a subject labeled ‘history’. I’m all for sharing national myths with the kiddies. I’m even happy with the sharing of basic ideas and ideals although am not sure any country has ideals that are universally held by 100% of her citizenry.


Contradictory Ben 01.09.06 at 6:45 pm

For what it’s worth, I found Hasting’s article to be repellant enjoinder to jingoistic history teaching, what with his weird implications that we needn’t bother learning about the victims of history and that Brits should feel the same emotions about the Battle of Crecy (!) that Americans feel about Lincoln’s Gettysburg address.

I’m also slightly confused by Harry’s narrowing of ‘utilitarianism’ to a matter of marketability and the economy. Isn’t there more to the calculus of human happiness than earning power?


Guy 01.09.06 at 6:46 pm

“I think this myth (…) does a good job of engaging the emotional sympathies of young people, but a terrible job of enabling them to see the evidence about causal processes at work.”

Myths also, in my honest and naive opinion, tend to blur details. Understanding details is key to explaining subtleties. Understanding subtleties is key to explaining diversity. Understanding diversity is key to explaining the beauty of our existence.

I suppose myths must be particular lethal in science.

Personally, I hate myths in education because they lack the nuance and subtleties that make our lives so rich.

I like myths when they remind us of higher ideals, either national or international. But entertaining a myth should be a conscious choice and never the subject of any kind of enforcement.

Sorry for the high-winded style, by the way. Hope I make sense.


Guy 01.09.06 at 6:56 pm

“But why assume that its always beneficial to encounter those shades of gray the first time out?”

Good point, especially in the education of children. Should amend my previous post by adding the word “adult” here and there.

But there is another question. If most kids are anything like I was, things learned at a young age tend to leave a deep impression in the mind.

If, at a later age, nuances are thrown in would that explain, in some cases at least, the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance and a subsequent distrust towards authority and a form of entrenchment when it comes to accepting new insights and ideas?

Or, how conservative is knowledge?


Daniel 01.09.06 at 6:59 pm

I always think that the most interesting thing about British teaching of history is that when you bump into the odd Irish person and conversation turns to the subject of Oliver Cromwell, you find out that they get taught a quite radically different view of the Lord Protector of England, paragon of virtue and founder of our modern democracy who if he had a fault was perhaps a bit of a killjoy when it came to maypoles and pantomines.


gr 01.09.06 at 7:02 pm

Isn’t the interest in the myth of Rosa Parks something altogether different than an interest in the history of which she’s a part? History, after all, is the opposite of fiction. So an interest in the truth about one’s past must be a constitutive element of any historical interest, properly so called. Whatever reasons there may be for telling children uplifting stories about brave old ladies, they aren’t reasons for being interested in history.


Kieran Healy 01.09.06 at 7:24 pm

when you bump into the odd Irish person

No need for the qualifier, we’re all odd.

You’re right about Cromwell, though. Every Irish person knows two things about Cromwell: he was responsible for the Siege of Drogheda (and the massacre of the garrison that followed), and as he (ahem) pacified Ireland he told people they could go “to hell or to Connacht.” (Tough choice, actually.)


Steve LaBonne 01.09.06 at 8:20 pm

To me the fallacy of calls for educational “relevance” seems pretty obvious. You can’t avoid encountering your everyday life, everyday associates, popular culture, etc. Thus, the job of school is largely to give students those things that they DON’T get from their everyday lives. Otherwise, why bother with school at all?

As far as the remarks on tendentious history teaching go- I’ve always liked Bertrand Russell’s suggestion that the history of any country should always be taught by natives of other countries.


Bro. Bartleby 01.09.06 at 8:34 pm

Perhaps with the Internet, the up and coming generations no longer consider it wise or practical to stuff one’s brain with excessive data just so that one has a built-in library at ones disposal at all times. In the past, when one found oneself with scant data on a particular subject, a trip to the closest library was the only way to gather the facts, and the manual search could be painstaking and time consuming. In the past the only solution was to stuff one’s skull with as many facts as could be wedged in. As Crooked Timber demonstrates on an hourly basis, one can join a discussion when one has but the foggiest notion of what is being discussed. But with some frantic googling and a bit of speedreading on Wikipedia, one can confidently join in the discussion with new found erudition. And this isn’t necessary a bit of deception, of course it can be, but with a proper functioning CPU inside that skull, one can discern and process raw data at an amazing speed (the time it takes from posting and reading a response, and then a quick search of Wikipedia, a quick digestion of facts and information, and then the slight-of-hand reply to the post. Voila! A jab to the solar plexus! And the ‘discussion’ continues).


Steve LaBonne 01.09.06 at 8:40 pm

Sounds rather like Plato’s complaints about the ill effects of literacy.


Contradictory Ben 01.09.06 at 8:41 pm

Bro. Bartleby,

The notion that history teaching properly consists of cramming facts into kid’s heads is truly archaic. A crucial part of modern history teaching is the evaluation of sources and the encouragement of critical thought about changes in politics, society, religion, etc.


Tom T. 01.09.06 at 8:53 pm

It would be interesting, as an experiment, to raise a child to adulthood with no instruction in history. The obvious question is, would that person be condemned to repeat it?


Guy 01.09.06 at 8:56 pm

“A crucial part of modern history teaching is the evaluation of sources”

Historical criticism, is that the English term?
Best course I ever had at Uni.


Tracy W 01.09.06 at 10:30 pm

I think teaching history should definitely include facts.

For example, say you have been only taught to critically evaluate sources and to critically think about changes in politics, society, religion, etc. Then you run into someone who claims that “nationalism started with Wilson’s idea of the self-determination of peoples”.

Now when my dad argued that, I immediately thought of Queen Elizabeth I of England’s speech including the line “I may have the body of a woman, but I have the heart of a man, and it is the heart of an Englishman.” Then I thought of pretty much all of Scotish history since about 1066. Then I took that specific knowledge to argue that nationalism started well before Woodrow Wilson (who of course lived in the early 20th century). If you don’t know any facts about history, how do you think it would occur to you to pick that statement as a questionable one? And where would you start looking for counter-examples?

Plus in my experience a fair number of teachers can’t or don’t distinguish between “critical thought” and “regurgiating the teacher’s own beliefs.” I am not against teaching how to evaluate skills and make logical arguments per se, but if learning facts is also important then at least the students of the more limited teachers learn something useful.


Barry Freed 01.10.06 at 12:48 am

Inculcating “moral sentiment,” “patriotic attachment,” “cultural identity”? There is a far more apt phrase, and well it should be for it is a term of art (and a very dark art it is.) Instilling “brand loyalty” is what its practitioner’s term it.

* Small wonder why so many school districts in the US saw no problem in signing exclusive contracts with Coke or Pepsi.


John Quiggin 01.10.06 at 1:13 am

Coming back to sd’s point, I don’t think it’s necessary for 6-year olds to be given a complete history of the civil rights movement, or a class analysis of Washington .

But I don’t think it helps anybody to teach uplifting myth as history, whether it’s Washington and the cherry tree or Rosa Pakrs as a tired old woman.


JH 01.10.06 at 2:47 am

Perhaps the most important element of historical education is merely in teaching methods of critical thinking. But it seems to me that this is a utilitarian argument. If true it is certainly likely to improve one’s employability. I’m really not sure though, that it is the only or even most important fundamental we can gleam from history. Treated properly history can teach us about mechanisms and processes which cannot necessarily be understood as completely from philosophy or the social sciences. A historian should know better, of course, than to try and predict the future, and history and past processes cannot be interpreted or transliterated into the present literally. No two periods are analogous; but certain elements and mechanisms may be, if not eternal truths, at least common enough to all societies to be of use to us. Surely the extreme difference in cultural, technological, and other factors between out present society and those we study – if you like their very irrelevance – is what enables us to understand what the common denominating factors in human society may be. Where, for example, would an understanding of the structure of power in society be without real-world examples from dozens of cultures and periods of time? Far poorer, I would imagine. The reliance on historical examples in works such as Jack Goldstone’s (on revolutions) is surely evidence and example of this.

The perspective and (given time constraints) selection of history taught will always leave a particular impression. All study of the past is thus flawed, as post-modernists so gleefully point out. But there is no need to throw out the baby with the bath-water, nor to resign to ourselves that outright misinformation is inevitable. The truth can be approached asymptotically, even if it is not fixed. Hasting’s clumsy effort to revive GR Elton is only as daft as the “social engineering” behind a multi-cultural agenda. Maybe historical teaching should side-step these issues as far as possible, and teach the most immutable truths it can?


soru 01.10.06 at 7:47 am

If most kids are anything like I was, things learned at a young age tend to leave a deep impression in the mind.

I think this is key – Dawkins goes as far as to say it’s a built in evolutionary mechanism, and the opinion of the Jesuits on this topic is well known.

If it is true that anything you are told before the age of 6 you will either believe or rebel against life-long, there are 3 choices:

1. tell all children the same stuff, so they share the same basic assumptions and can use reason and evidence to work through differences
2. tell all children different stuff, but have some means of managing or coping with the resulting culture war.
3. forbid any contact between adults and children

On the whole, the first option is least worst.



Alison 01.10.06 at 8:25 am

Charles Clarke, when education secretary, dismissing medieval and classical studies

Isn’t this one of those political myths that gain currency (like Jim Callaghan saying ‘Crisis what crisis?’)

My understanding was that Charles Clark dismissed the mediaeval scholastic model of educational funding, rather than mediaeval studies, and that this nuance got lost in the subsequent reporting.

ie he was dismissing the notion that obligation between the academic community and wider society was in one direction (the peasants having a duty to support the university) and to emphasise that there was a second duty (the university having a duty to provide some wider social good, however defined, in return for that financial support).


Alison 01.10.06 at 8:31 am

would help the credibility of that comment if I hadn’t misspelled his name :-(


ajay 01.10.06 at 8:43 am

“Tired old woman” isn’t even an uplifting myth. It’s implying that she just didn’t have the strength to obey the law, rather than making a conscious decision to oppose it. It’s like implying that, say, that bloke on Tiananmen Square was just lost while shopping and happened to wander in front of the tanks.
Just tell the 6-year-olds that she decided one day that the law was unfair, so she broke it.


y81 01.10.06 at 9:47 am

I admit to considerable conflict on these sorts of issues, but it should be remembered that the maintenance of our freedom depends on producing, in every generation, large numbers of 18 year old men willing to storm the beaches of Normandy, and that this goal should certainly be considered in designing school curricula.


Bro. Bartleby 01.10.06 at 10:02 am

How about a totally new way of teaching, setting aside a part of each school day (from K-12) for critically thinking, apart from all other courses of study? And what would this class look like?


fred lapides 01.10.06 at 11:27 am

I would ask this of you: look back at what you studied and learned as an undergrad. Now look at the same historical issues or topics. Have you new, different revisioned ideas about those items?

All thilngs are historical: every subject, indlcluding religion evolves and what we believe today is not wahat was taught and accepted previously…Make it new, said Pound. But so much of history is filled with lies, distortions and myths.


Bro. Bartleby 01.10.06 at 1:30 pm

“But so much of history is filled with lies, distortions and myths.”

Well, yes … and no … but what is truth? The unvarnished record of what took place in a certain place at a certain time? If so, then maybe we should begin archiving the tapes of the countless security and surveillance cameras that surround us all. Certainly an unvarnished witness to our history and a treasure-trove for future historians.


Bill McNeill 01.10.06 at 1:56 pm

I also find the idea of Rosa Parks as a conscious agitator more inspiring than the idea of her as virtuous political naif. Incidentally, the civil rights history Parting the Waters has a fascinating account of the political tactics surrounding the Rosa Parks arrest.

It’s fascinating how mythmaking affects even the most basic verifiable facts. For instance, that “tired old woman” was 42 years old at the time of her arrest, yet she’s always portrayed as a grandmotherly figure. Though this seems a little ridiculous today, you can see how it would have been helpful at the time. A grandmotherly Rosa Parks was figure more likely to be beyond reproach, harder to spin as a mere troublemaker, and more in line with the Christian imagery from which the civil rights movement drew. sd #2’s point about “What would you have the schools do?” may or may not point to the best way to teach history, but it is helpful in showing how this particular myth grew.


Tracy W 01.10.06 at 3:46 pm

Comment 25. – “If it is true that anything you are told before the age of 6 you will either believe or rebel against life-long…”

I don’t think it’s true. Before I was 6 years old, one of my uncles told me there were tigers living in the bush on Gran’s farm. I now no longer believe this (what with Gran’s farm being in NZ where there is a distinct shortage of wild tigers), nor do I rebel against it in any meaningful way. And if simply not believing something is rebelling, then the statement is as true after age 6 as before. We either believe what we are told or we don’t believe.

And “2. tell all children different stuff, but have some means of managing or coping with the resulting culture war.”

I think we can cope with the resulting culture war. I can’t think of a single culture in recorded history that has managed to teach all kids younger than 6 the same things (perhaps the Spartans?), yet society has gone on surviving.


Katz 01.10.06 at 6:01 pm

Hastings is trapped uncomfortably between two imperatives.

His first imperative the social-engineer’s desire to tell “noble lies” to kiddies to make them happy about present arrangements; white folks running the world, we’re on the winning side, god’s in his heaven and all’s well with the world.

His second imperative is to tell the truth without regard for its political or cultural consequences. Here is Hastings’s big picture and take-home message of history.

“History is the story of the dominance, however unjust, of societies that display superior energy, ability, technology and might.”

Hastings acknowledges that it is difficult to feel warm and fuzzy about his big picture, hence the necessity for teachers to tell some “noble lies” to protect the kiddies from the hard truth.

But Hastings’s big picture isn’t so big after all. Certainly the West has been the great generator of historical energy for the last 500 years. And some of it has been in the form of “hard power” as characterised by Hastings above.

However, I assert that Western ideas about human equality, tolerance, secularism, rule of law, pursuit of happiness, etc., etc., have been more influential than exercises in hard power.

And many of these Western ideas have been taken on by nations and cultures that suffered Western imperialism. Western imperialism has thus been curtailed by Western ideas. This is a much more interesting story than mono-dimensional assertions of “hard power” favoured by Hastings. And it may even engage the kiddies.

To apply this insight to Rosa Parks: she descended from slaves with no civil rights. Formal freedom after the end of the American Civil War was mocked by segregationism. As a member of a leftt wing organisation she learned about liberty, equality, fraternity. She also learned about the tactics of Daniel O’Connell, Michael Davitt and Gandhi.

These figures represent an important and liberating inheritance of the West. Every kiddie in every country would profit from learning about them much more than learning about Rhodes or Pizarro or Cortes.


Fence 01.11.06 at 5:16 am

I’m reminded of a line of Terry Pratchett’s about teaching, and how a lot of it is simply “lies-to-children”. We simplify things at an early age so we can explain them to children, but as the children grow up these lies should be explained and slowly they’ll evolve into something that more closely resembles the truth. Only problem is that so many of us grow up still thinking that those lies are the truth and never question the details.


Stryker 01.13.06 at 12:32 pm

Two thoughts I had:
1.) Most here seem to be assumng the teacher knows that Rosa Parks was neither tired, nor old. I don’t think this assumption should be made. This adds a whole new arguement which has been going on for years — what ‘facts’ are true?

2.) “setting aside a part of each school day (from K-12) for critically thinking…”
It is unwise to ask an opinion before facts are given. IMHO, education should seek to lay a groundwork of facts from 6-9 yrs. from 10-13 should focus on teaching communication skills (not that these are ignored earlier, but build on them). And teach critical thinking from 14-18.

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