Why study History?

Is it all about trauma and mistakes? 

Drew Thomas who teaches IB History at NLCS on Jeju Island questions the narrowness of popular history courses offered by most international schools.

Is it all about mistakes?

When asking a group of new students why they study history at the start of a term there will always be, almost without fail, one who says it is to learn from past mistakes. Whilst this well-intentioned idea is often given during popular debate, it stands on shaky reasoning. Superficially it is attractive. In 430 BC Herodotus – the Greek ‘father of history’ –  commented on the fluid and problematic nature of the Scythian territory north of the Black Sea and today those borders are once again being brutally contested. For as long as humans have read or been taught the subject they have been divided, antagonistic and destructive. If anything, the scale has increased and divisions worsened. We could have avoided modern mistakes, the argument goes if we understood the past. Point proven given, the current war in Ukraine? Not quite.

The past hasn’t all been traumatic. It’s not just about ‘mistakes’.  There are countless examples of unity, creation and progress. So which story are we telling in the history classrooms of today and what should we be trying to achieve?

Just what ‘lessons’ are students learning here?

Poor learning outcomes

As teachers and curriculum designers, we approach our subjects with the benefit of experience and insight. We craft sequences of lessons and connections between modules which make perfect sense to us.

However, as David Diadau recently highlighted there is an important difference between expert teachers and novice students. As experts we can link European societal changes and the establishment of empires for example, whilst students likely see these topics as separate, viewing History as ‘one damned thing after another’.

But there is another problem by the time students are in possession of sufficient content and context allowing them to begin thinking deeply about the subject, the majority are leaving it, often with an overall impression of disjointed wars, calamities and revolutions, backward people and national heroes. Herein lies an image problem with history and its purpose in schools.

The narrowness of school History curricula

Whilst it is ridiculous to expect teachers to cover the whole breadth of human experience, there does exist a propensity to revisit the same well-traversed material in the same ways.

Regional preference is common and problematic but the history taught in schools is also entangled and exacerbated by a thematic obsession with trauma, confrontation and division, especially from the modern period.

Disaster and upheaval

Ordinarily, as students approach the end of their history education in school, they are greeted by the extreme disasters and upheavals of the twentieth century. A century marked by European hubris and self-destruction, American ascendancy and underdeveloped global south and east. Consider the two year Cambridge IGCSE program. As the course comes to a close, the USSR’s collapse marks an almost Fukuyama-esque end of history appended by a firestorm in the Middle East.

Hitler, Stalin and Kennedy have all come and gone but the variety and exceptional nature of the twentieth century have been passed by.

What’s out? What’s in?

Culture, technological growth, the environment, economics and gender are ignored or briefly touched upon in a depth study, limited, predictably, to Europe, America and war. Just as students are starting to think in more complex terms about the topic, they are confronted by a catalogue of human failure and division dominated by white, male actors and so painfully current as to be clouded by impenetrable human bias. Although not reflective of every school’s approach, a focus on modern political and diplomatic machinations, labelled as international perspectives, at the expense of all else is common.  4,500 schools use Cambridge and a glance at online resources, teacher forums and syllabus guides stands as supporting evidence. This is not only disconnected from the richness of contemporary academic work but does little to make history relevant, useful or engaging.

New subject matter needed

Perhaps then it’s time to let go of some of our treasured and safe subject matter and look toward new/old approaches. Since 1972 the School’s History Project has advocated thematic studies for younger students. A pivot toward diversity and considering the place of history in the contemporary lives of young people should be central to our approach. Whilst Euro-centric, there is plenty to admire and build on in the approach pioneered by the SHP. Topics such as identity, leisure, science, art and culture all offer rich veins to mine across time and space. This is not intended to ignore the major wars, revolutions or global crises but to place them in the context of contradictory and complex societies. Rather than silo ‘women’ in a restricted line of inquiry, we could consider how gender identity has been transformed over time. Instead of looking at the technology applied to conflict, we should examine the role of science and invention over centuries of development. Art and culture, having perpetually reflected and constructed identity over millennia, should not be merely relegated to a propaganda footnote.

The value of History

There is real value in learning about the past even if seeing it as a guide for future action is flawed. The purpose of historical inquiry in order to build knowledge and understanding should be to help us appreciate the roots and causes of the societies and systems around us now, build empathy with others and in so doing help us navigate the complexity of the world we live in.

A world of nuance and multiplicity which is constructed through the experiences of billions and not just directed by the decisions of a vaunted few. If we remain entrenched in pet topics, fixated on global cataclysms and deterministic, national narratives we can only provide a parody of the past for our students, a trailer of the full movie with plenty of tragedy and drama but with no real appreciation of the full, epic and continuing story.


Drew Thomas is a history teacher and Head of Year 10 at NLCS on Jeju Island


Feature Image: by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

Support Images: by Jon Tyson, Unseen Histories & Museums Victoria on Unsplash