History ought to make your head hurt

Clarity comes from difficult thinking, argues Mark Taylor

At the heart of the recent spat between Michael Gove and his "progressive" opponents is the question of what history education is for. The traditionalists focus on learning dates and forming a view of why they are important. The progressives focus on learning research skills and forming a view of whether the dates are really necessary. Both approaches have now been around so long that they have clouded our ambition. Children could be forgiven for thinking history is just one damn thing or the other.

This long-running history debate has been polarised between narrative and skills. Ofsted and the Historical Association favour an "enquiry-led" approach. The Better History Group and the Department for Education want a return to narrative. Ironically, it's not clear that anyone really has a handle on why history might matter. Perhaps the declining numbers of pupils who study the subject aren't even convinced it matters at all.

To counter this, ministers, critics and historians too often promote the virtues of history as a useful tool for a range of non-historical ends. Simon Schama writes that history is the "least politically correct tutor of tolerance". Others champion the discipline's strength for "puncturing myths".

History as a subject has also become the receptacle for the gaping absence of historical context in all other subjects on the curriculum, and has therefore been forced to compensate by offering bite-sized histories (now called GCSEs) when students need to catch up. Ideally, every subject should be learned historically. Yet, to the average teacher in other subjects, history provides a get-out clause. Go and ask the history teacher; he might know who Newton was! As if, by its very existence, having history as a school subject means no one else is required to bother.

History can seem anachronistic in modern education, so teachers tend to respond by looking for relevance and making things fun. It is not always a bad idea. Educational fun, however, proceeds through the use of the imagination, which many educators and parents overvalue. The problem with the imagination is that it is often too easy. Schools do not like the word intellect. They do like the word imagination. Why? To judge by the recent letter from over 200 experts to a newspaper lamenting the erosion of childhood, kids apparently "have a right to be healthy and joyful natural learners". But childhood should include difficult thinking as well as play: that's what growing up is all about.

Of course, outside the classrooms, popular history is still, well, popular. From Bill Bryson's A Short History Of Nearly Everything to the bit-of-a-sing-song approach of Horrible Histories, it seems all can have their history cake and we let them eat it, too. What is less popular, in or out of school, is the idea that history should really make us think until our heads hurt: until we stop being our old selves and become someone new.

For history to regain its educational mission, we need to remember that it is about the difficult life of the mind, not about the easy passing of time. Fortunately, most children still aspire to have their mind turned inside out by good history teaching that confuses and bewilders their assumptions, obliging them to find newer clarity and higher expectations. It is an educational fire alarm, forcing all hands to the pump of the past. Not the dump of the present. The uneducated person, wrote classicist Gilbert Highet, lives only in the present. But the educated one struggles with history's ultimate questions - fate, destiny, eternity, will - in the context of what others before did with them. Not just what history means to you but what you do to conquer yourself.

Mark Taylor is a history teacher and head of humanities at Addey and Stanhope School, south London. He is speaking at the debate 'What is history education for?' at the Battle of Ideas festival, Royal College of Art, London, 29-30 October. www.battleofideas.org.uk.

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