The origins of the phrase – 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it' – are hotly disputed, but it is no less meaningful as a result. It is worth remembering this when we reflect on the past few years, a period of turbulent change on a global scale: mass migration into Europe, ‘Brexit’, the surprise outcome of several elections, and the deaths of so many loved and cherished famous faces from across the arts world – the list could and does go on. Meanwhile, we have commemorated the centenaries of major WWI battles including Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele and the Brusilov Offensive, Russia’s last major push on the Eastern Front.
With these events of a century ago fresh in our minds, studying history today seems more pertinent than ever. We recently welcomed to my school the wonderful, indomitable Freddie Knoller BEM, a 96 year-old Jewish survivor of both Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. 'Why do we learn about the Holocaust', my Year 9 students ask me. 'It’s so horrible' and 'How could this happen, Sir?' is a common refrain.
Through learning about history, we try to render explicable the inhumane; pupils begin to gain an appreciation of the dire warning people like the warm-hearted Mr Knoller aim so fervently to instil in the young of today. We must remember that life as we know it is tenuous and social norms precious – nationalism and populism serve as harbingers of the worst of what mankind is capable.
I am passionate about the teaching of history as it sets the context for who we are today, how we see ourselves and the shape of our world. It enables us to see the way ahead more clearly – as nations, as individuals and as political beings. As parents, we will have our own memories of the teaching of history when we were at school. Back then, history might have been about memorising the various wives of Henry VIII, looking at the history of empires or famous rulers; it was about studying the past. But I see history today as the most modern of subjects and it is very much alive at the most crucial of times. In the Summer Attain, Peter Tait argued that the ability of pupils to detect bias is crucial for the future of learning. He is right – and in no small measure. The advent (or more likely greater prevalence) of ‘fake news’ invites our pupils to reflect on what ‘truth’ really is. Here there is much hope. Children quickly reject the rigid dichotomies of the adult world – I am yet to find a Lower School pupil who does anything but marvel at how adults regularly vote in elections and referenda in which there are only really two diametrically opposed choices. 'Is the best colour red or blue?' 'Well, it depends on what you’re using it for, Sir'. Quite.
Whilst politicians understandably (but unforgivably) avoid policy commitments to allow for realpolitik wriggle-room, and journalists seize on soundbites around which to create stories of meaning, we try to inculcate in our students a need to always be aware of bias – be it unintentional or not. The media, is, after all, a way of mediating between reality and re-presentations of that very reality. In an increasingly globalised world, if one accepts that such change is inevitable and irrevocable, one must surely concede that growing minds need greater critical ability in order to avoid total saturation of information and subconscious manipulation at its nefarious hands. After all, who edits the internet? The young do not have a monopoly on growing minds, of course – but perhaps theirs are more receptive to new ideas – to the ideas of others. They will more readily challenge authority, the established norms and traditions. The advent of the internet has provided a new medium for this process but history is littered with revolutions: political, cultural and technological.
Many of us form our opinions, of course, at the hands of the media editors, selecting media which mirror our own prejudices. As the great Paul Simon once wrote in a lyric: ‘the man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest’. All of this begs the difficult question of when an event, trend or ideology becomes ‘history’. Are the issues and divisions unleashed by ‘Brexit’ classified as history – and if not, when will they become so? Interpretation is vital in the history classroom too – here, one might set up a discussion of the ‘Brexit’ referendum and conclude by evaluating what we mean by ‘democracy’, and whether something is ‘right’ because most people think it. History should be debated and views and perspectives of history challenged and discussed. History teaching at its best throws a spotlight on the past by bringing events to life. Pupils need to think beyond and around the curriculum. And this is where parents can definitely get involved. In school holidays or at weekends, you can help instil a love of history in your child. Visit local museums or any places of historical interest; discuss how the past has shaped the present and let them see how history is all around us and shaping our future.
'Living History' activities, such as a re-enactment of life in the trenches during the First World War, really lift key events from the textbook pages and make them real. Immersing pupils in these historical events encourages them to learn to assess evidence and build cogent arguments. There is no right or wrong when they form a view and teachers should play devil’s advocate to get them thinking around a topic and a set of circumstances. It is important to teach pupils to question assumptions and arguments, to test their ideas – every answer needs to have been refined – and finally they should show why other options have been rejected. The process is about far more than remembering a list of dates and facts or simply enjoying the many colourful characters they might encounter.
It is no surprise to me that history is now one of the most popular subjects to study at university or that potential employers are keen to hire history graduates. Traditionally it was believed that the logical pathway of a history student was to a career in teaching, heritage or culture. Times have changed however, and today history graduates have great opportunities in other fields such as law, journalism, publishing, investment banking and the Civil Service.
Teaching history is about developing how children think – crucially, how to avoid rigidity, and always to question and re-evaluate. When it comes to assessing which subjects to study at GCSE and beyond, the case for history has always been strong. We can but hope those who study it go out into the world able to make fewer mistakes – and act in more informed ways – than those who have gone before.