What Is History For?

By Furtado, Peter | History Today, April 2007 | Go to article overview

What Is History For?


Furtado, Peter, History Today


CAN YOU LEARN TO BECOME A GOOD CITIZEN--or even a loyal subject of the Queen--through the study of history? Can you teach someone what it means to be British through the study of history? If so, how?

Eric Hobsbawm once argued that governments the world over make their young study history in school, 'not to understand society and how it changes, but to approve of it, to be proud of it, to be or become good citizens'. There is no question in my mind that if you set out explicitly to teach citizenship (as we have recently begun to do once again), then a strongly historical approach is vital. But what is the relationship between citizenship, patriotism and historical enquiry?

These questions have come to the fore again recently, as putative successors to the present government limber up for their leadership campaigns by bringing issues of national identity back up the agenda, while academics and teachers consider the implications of their dicta for what goes on in the classroom.

The contemporary historian and commentator Timothy Garton Ash has described that famously elusive concept, Britishness, as a comfortable old overcoat which hides a multitude of sins. In many ways this is an attractive metaphor, but it sits uncomfortably with the politicians' desire that its essential elements can ever be revealed by historical analysis.

Many teachers feel that teaching Britishness is not only an impossible task, but that it is also one that betrays the essence of the discipline by unjustifiably raising a voguish concept to the status of a term of universal analysis. …

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