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Debate: History, dangers of teaching in schools

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Is it dangerous to teach History to school pupils?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by George Molyneaux. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.

Background and context

The option to study past societies is present in most school systems, and is often compulsory at primary school and in the early years of secondary school. Debate about the teaching of History in schools is particularly prominent and heated in East Asia: China and South Korea object to modern Japanese textbooks, approved by the Japanese government, which sometimes omit or marginalize atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers in the 1930s and 1940s. The approval of such textbooks prompted violent anti-Japanese demonstrations in several Chinese cities in April 2005. However, the issue is of broader significance: arguably all historical writing is coloured by the conscious and subconscious prejudices and preoccupations of its authors. This debate needs to assess the extent of these influences, but also calls for consideration of whether the benefits of historical study outweigh any drawbacks that may result from such bias. The proposition in this debate can adopt either of two principal lines of argument: it can argue either that all study of History is dangerous or that the subject can only be safely studied in non-school contexts (e.g. through private reading or at university level). If you are knowledgeable about a particular period of History, you may find it useful to have a look at school textbooks on the period to gauge the extent to which they simplify and distort historical evidence.

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Argument #1

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Yes

History taught in schools sometimes involves flagrant distortion of historical evidence either by the State or by individual teachers. Attempts may be made to avoid nasty aspects of a nation’s past (e.g. the massacre of Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers at Nanking in 1937) and/or to put down other peoples (e.g. the presentation of Australian Aboriginals as uncivilized until the 1960s). As well as these extreme examples, low-level anti-Americanism is arguably pervasive in modern French school textbooks, reflecting tensions between France and the USA arising from the latter’s Gaullist heritage and the recent “War on Terror”. It is highly undesirable for school pupils to be exposed to misinformation peddled in History classes, which can lead to violence, hatred or discrimination.

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No

Coming up with instances in which History teaching is used for propagandist purposes does not prove that it is necessarily dangerous to teach History in schools. The vast majority of History teaching does not seek to promote such agendas. All subjects can be distorted if the State and its teachers are prepared to try hard enough - for example, under the Nazis German children were taught Mathematics with a heavy emphasis upon military applications (e.g. calculating angles and ranges for artillery). Instead of banning the subject, what is needed is proper inspection of schools and monitoring of the curriculum, under the control of a democratic government.

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Argument #3

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Yes

Even if no agenda is being consciously or subconsciously pursued, school pupils are presented with oversimplified information in History. This is a result of the limited time available, the limited intellectual capacity of pupils, the limited knowledge of many teachers (who may not be History specialists, especially in primary schools) and the desire for answers that can be labelled as “correct” or “incorrect” in examinations. Much school History teaching is therefore concerned with memorising “facts”. However, there is arguably no such thing as a “historical fact”, beyond a very basic level (e.g. it is a “fact” that the Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066). For example, the questions of what actually happened at Hastings and what the Battle’s significance may have been lack definitive answers.

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No

It is useful to learn “historical facts”: one cannot engage in historical debates without knowledge of what happened when. For most post-medieval periods, it is possible to establish such “facts” with a very high degree of probability. Even if “facts” are simplified, this need not be “intellectually dangerous”: it is impossible to prove that a real harm results from only knowing the academically dominant interpretation of a historical episode, even if it might be theoretically desirable to consider minority viewpoints too. Indeed, all school teaching involves simplification and generalization: much school science teaching entails discussion of how general rules (learned earlier during a pupil’s school career) are not always applicable.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Even when there is no attempt to deceive or manipulate, postmodernist critiques of History (e.g. Jenkins – see book suggestions below) suggest all History teaching will reflect the preconceptions and aims of those who set and teach the curriculum. The British government announced in early 2006 that History taught in schools should seek to engender a sense of “Britishness” by stressing a shared political and cultural heritage. Even if no historical events are invented, this will lead to an unbalanced account, in which events that support modern political/social ends are highlighted and others receive less attention. The principle that such tainted information can be taught to children is dangerous.

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No

Some historical theorists argue that it is possible for historians to achieve a considerable degree of objectivity, especially if they seek to be aware of the influences upon their own thinking (e.g. Evans – see book suggestions below). Part of most secondary school History curricula is the consideration of how historians are affected by the context in which they write: this equips pupils to consider critically what they are being taught and why they are being taught it. Moreover, it can be argued that worthwhile ends (e.g. the good relations between different ethnic communities sought by the British government) justify some selection of the History that is taught to schoolchildren. After all, it isn’t possible to teach children everything about all historical periods, so there must be some criteria for making choices about what would be most valuable to study.

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Argument #4

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Yes

It is intellectually dangerous to imply to school pupils that they can approach History with the level of certainty they encounter in other subjects (e.g. Mathematics). If History should be studied at all, it should only be studied by people when they have developed sufficient powers of reason to understand the uncertainties and subtleties inherent in the subject (e.g. at university or in adulthood). There is otherwise a danger that they will treat questionable information as truth.

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No

Where there is uncertainty, this can and should be highlighted if pupils have the intellectual capacity to understand the debate. Much of the benefit of studying History is that it is not (or should not be) solely based upon the learning of facts. Rather, History develops the ability to evaluate and challenge different interpretations. If historical study were postponed to adulthood, this would mean that most people would learn no History, unless they chose to study for a History degree. And it is impossible to escape any discussion of History in adult life - there are many television programmes and press articles devoted to historical subjects every day, and politicians constantly refer to past events to justify their actions. Only if citizens are equipped at school to question such historical interpretations can the public avoid being misled.

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Argument #5

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Yes

History encourages people to become obsessed with past conflicts and alleged wrongs inflicted upon them; it is more productive to forget the past and to seek friendship in the present. For example, modern tensions would be reduced if pupils in Ireland were no longer taught about the Battle of the Boyne (1690) and pupils in South Asia stopped learning about conflicts following the Partition between India and Pakistan (1947).

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No

“Organized forgetting” of the past does not lead to harmony: those who allege historic wrongs are unlikely to forget them and will be aggrieved at attempts to deny the significance of the events concerned. This is seen in the Chinese outcry at Japanese attempts to forget the Rape of Nanking. Friendship results from shared recognition of past wrongs, and a resolve not to repeat past injustices and mistakes; studying the past is essential for this. History teaching in schools is especially important when tensions are present: those who set and teach the curriculum can and should strive to be impartial, to counter one-sided historical narratives to which pupils may be exposed by their families and the media.

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Argument #6

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Yes

History teaching is a waste of time, particularly at school, where it often revolves around the learning of names and dates. Antiquarian knowledge is of no practical use; pupils should spend more time learning sciences and vocational subjects. It is dangerous to both pupils’ employment prospects and the economy as a whole for time to be spent studying History at school.

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No

History actually teaches many useful skills, which are of great value to both individuals and the economy. These include the ability to think critically and construct reasoned arguments, awareness of differing points of view and understanding of cultures (both one’s own and those of others). It is therefore not a dangerous waste of time.

Motions:

  • This House believes that it is dangerous to teach History to schoolchildren
  • This House believes we should put the past behind us
  • This House believes that “History is bunk”
  • That History has no place in the classroom
  • We should not look back

In legislation, policy, and the real world:

See also

External links and resources:

Books:

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