The past is a battlefield

21st February 2014 at 00:00

The recent furore in the media about the causes of the First World War raised important issues about the place of history in a broad education. Napoleon is reputed to have said that history was the version of events that people had decided to agree upon. However, the subject is at its most interesting when it is the subject of controversy and debate.

That debate is fuelled by the fact that there is an awful lot of content to choose from. Selecting what to teach is therefore difficult and open to the assaults of prejudice. Yet, paradoxically, the need to combat prejudice is one of the key reasons for studying history in the first place. History is about the interpretation of often limited and apparently conflicting evidence. It should teach young people to be conscious of bias, including their own, and therefore to seek, test and respect evidence, and to be cautious about rushing to judgement.

Who should decide on the agreed "version of events" to be taught to our young people? Teachers, academics, ministers? Not long ago the answer would have been relatively straightforward. The curriculum was largely the "secret garden" of educational professionals. However, things have recently become much more political. How do we protect our young people from the undue influence of short-term pressures and ensure that "common sense" does not always trump professional experience and academic study?

This year will mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War and we are already seeing wildly different interpretations of why war broke out in Europe in 1914. Any passing acquaintance with the toxic mix of nationalism, militarism and economics that characterised the unfolding picture in Europe from 1870 onwards would suggest caution in making assertions about what happened. Yet we are told by some that Britain embarked on a "just war" against German militarism and colonial ambitions, and by others that we stumbled into war, blind to the realities of what would follow.

Distorted versions of history can have dramatic implications, as supposed past injustices are used to justify current courses of action. We need our citizens to possess the kind of sceptical and analytical mindset that encourages clarity and empathy in handling the challenges of 21st-century life.

Yet there are those who see history as a minor or even expendable component of a young person's education. Taught properly, history discourages the oversimplification of complex matters. When the subject is brought to life through imaginative teaching, we can hope that our young people will develop a lifelong interest in the past and acquire the knowledge, skills and predispositions that are integral to responsible citizenship.

Graham Donaldson is a professor of education at the University of Glasgow and author of the review Teaching Scotland's Future.

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