Why Teach Your Own Country’s History? A speech by Professor Robert Tombs

On the 25th February 2017, West London Free School hosted their first ever History Teaching Conference. Organised by Louis Everett, the event had several excellent speakers, including our own Hywel Jones, Christine Counsell and Robert Peal. Should you wish to find out more about the event, please look at Louis’ blog.

Below is a transcript of one of the standout speeches of the event, by Professor Robert Tombs of Cambridge University. Professor Tombs has kindly allowed us to publish it here; it really is an excellent read.


“History is not merely something to be read … We carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all we do.”

James Baldwin, ‘The White Man’s Guilt’

For precisely this reason, the teaching of history arouses emotions in many countries. It sometimes leads to controversial political and even legal interventions, to require or forbid the teaching of certain historical subjects or assertions. The assumption is that history informs national identity, has implications for the legitimacy of states and nations, and shapes political loyalties. As Orwell famously put it, ‘he who controls the past controls the future.’ Inevitably, parliaments, governments, schoolteachers and their trade unions, journalists, scholars and ordinary citizens tend to get involved.

Comparisons: ‘national narratives’

This has been true even in liberal democratic countries such as France and Britain, and I hope it might provide some context if I make a few comparisons concerning them.[1] A notorious example in France was the attempt to make it a legal requirement to teach that the French empire produced some positive results in its territories. Such direct involvement would be most unlikely in Britain.[2] But this is partly because England is unusual in giving so little value to history at school. Compared with many other western democracies, history forms a small part of our education, and our general culture must be affected by this. (Of course, one consequence might be that adults read history books in order to make up for the absence of historical study as adolescents.)

In France, history occupies a larger part of the curriculum, is pursued by more pupils to a later stage, and at the secondary level is generally taught by highly qualified teachers with a postgraduate certificate in history awarded after a competitive examination. France has a widely accepted historical narrative largely based on the centrality of ‘republican values’. This is centred on the Revolution of 1789, followed by the gradual victory of republicanism in the 19th century, and the defence of liberty in two world wars, culminating in the still fraught subject of occupation, collaboration, and resistance – what has been called ‘the Vichy syndrome’. Study of the Second World War in France involved teachers, academics (both French and foreign), intellectuals, politicians, political parties and the mass media; and it was a subject that had to be tackled. There is no comparably traumatic and central theme in British history. But broadly speaking, the French historical narrative has some resemblance to the old British narrative of ‘Whig history’, structured round the growth of parliamentary democracy. While this has been academically discredited,[3] it survives in simplified form.

What these two national narratives — ‘republican’ and ‘whig’ — have in common is to create a sense of national uniqueness, and to exalt mainstream progressive values. The attraction of the French national narrative is shown in the influence of the massive collection edited by Pierre Nora, Les Lieux de Mémoire [sites of memory] which explicitly aimed to preserve and catalogue the national ‘memory’ in the face of what Nora feared was growing ignorance and indifference.[4] In the British case, classic ‘Whig history’ was above all represented in the writings of Thomas Babington Macaulay in the mid-19th century, and of G. M. Trevelyan in the early-20th, which emphasised the growth of parliamentary democracy through a series of conflicts with the Crown, followed by a gradual and peaceful process of democratic reform. These narratives give or gave legitimacy to existing political systems by presenting them as the culmination of a long and glorious national saga — or in the words of an academic critic of Whig history, Herbert Butterfield, by creating a ‘caricature’ of the past pandering to the ‘ideas and prejudices’ of the present.[5] Both these narratives have always been contested, both by Right-wing and Left-wing alternatives. But both — even Whig history — retain purchase on popular ideas about the past, giving basic themes the status of unquestionable truths. These still figure in political debate and even in constitutional interpretation, as shown in our recent discussions about ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ and in the legal judgments on Article 50, which cited classic Whig texts.

In both France and Britain, there is public support for the teaching of national history. This desire has encountered misgivings, even opposition, from many teachers and academics who see national narratives as politically distorted and educationally undesirable.[6] In Britain, far more than in France, this led from the 1970s onwards to a move away from national history. Schools were largely free — unlike in France’s more controlled system — to choose from a variety of courses provided by competing examining bodies. There was a parallel insistence that historical study was aimed at the acquisition of certain skills, such as the ability to assess evidence, compare arguments and detect bias. No particular field of history was required to attain these skills. For critics of the system (of whom I was one[7]) this in practice produced an incoherent and fragmented curriculum excessively concerned with ‘skills’ of dubious intellectual value, especially when they were learnt and applied mechanically.

The National Curriculum for History

The answer favoured by Michael Gove as Secretary of State was to produce a new National Curriculum for History.[8] It would focus mainly on British history, would be organized as a coherent chronology, and would aim to teach ‘content’ rather than focusing on skills. The first draft was reportedly designed by Mr Gove himself, and it concentrated on a very Whiggish political narrative (he has several times declared himself a Whig). This predictably proved controversial. Critics included leading academic historians, teachers’ representatives and commentators in the progressive press. Criticism was seemingly based on a mixture of political mistrust, pedagogical preferences, and perhaps some wounded amour propre among those annoyed that their opinions had not been sought, or if sought not followed, by the Secretary of State. These included such luminaries as the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, the President of the Royal Historical Society, the Director of the Institute of Historical Research, and three section chairs of the British Academy.

Behind the controversy loomed an often unarticulated but deep political or ideological division. (I might say that there were parallels in France when Nicolas Sarkozy tried to set up a museum of national history in Paris.) On one side were those who suspected that Gove’s focus on national history was to be a smokescreen for ‘Tory history’ based on kings and queens, victories and patriotic exaltation, and who wanted history instead to ‘challenge’ self-congratulatory narratives and instil progressive cosmopolitan values. The journalist Laurie Penny alleged that

The Tories want our children to be proud of Britain’s imperial past … It is part of a broader political discourse that seeks, ultimately, to replace the messy, multivalent web of Britain’s cultural inheritance with one “big story” about dominance and hierarchy, of white over black, west over east, rich over poor … History, properly taught, should lead young people to question and challenge their cultural inheritance rather than simply “celebrate” it.[9]

On the other side, there were those who thought that ‘a working democracy requires solidarity, belonging and responsibility … [Citizens] should have a shared sense that the country and its history are theirs, and that they will be responsible for its future.’[10] In the middle were many teachers, educational specialists and examiners who above all wanted a sensible and teachable curriculum which took account of the limited time devoted to History in state schools and of the shortage of historical expertise among the teaching profession.

Michael Gove assembled a diverse group of interested people in March and June 2013 (of whom I was one), and allowed them to rewrite his original draft curriculum.[11] It became less political and less heavily events-based. While preserving the focus on British history, it included comparative elements on other cultures. While being largely chronological, it solved the practical problem of not confining the earlier historical periods solely to the younger age groups. It also included a choice of local and thematic topics and activities. It was met with a reasonable degree of satisfaction, even among some former critics, and was published in 2013.

The context of history teaching: a cultural kaleidoscope

Irrespective of what history is taught and how, and whatever the intentions behind it, school history is inevitably affected, if not drowned out, by the overwhelming presence of a vast diversity of images and interpretations of the past within both serious and popular culture. The past is constantly instrumentalized to convey messages and influence attitudes. Those in power have tried to do this throughout history by creating self-aggrandizing ceremonies and memorials. But conveying messages is also an important aspect of progressive academic history, which has in recent generations seen the growth of women’s history, gender studies, history from below, subaltern studies, post-colonial, transnational and world history, and many other genres. Major themes have been taken up by governments, museums, lobbies and charities, resulting in Holocaust memorials, ‘Black History Weeks’, migration history and many others. All these themes have been based on genuine intellectual insights, and the messages they have been used to convey are generally praiseworthy: gender equality, racial equality, tolerance, and inclusiveness. They seem to have been a powerful and successful means of influencing popular sentiments and language. But even praiseworthy messages can be distorting: for example, most people would now assume that nineteenth-century feminists all demanded votes for women, so much does that square with our present ideas about what feminism involves. But there were leading feminists who were little concerned with the parliamentary suffrage, or even regarded it as undesirable.[12] But voices from the past who do not fit with what we assume about them are often blanked out.

As well as being used to convey serious messages – equality, toleration etc. – history is a major source of entertainment, and it has been for many generations.[13] It is unnecessary, and it would be tedious, to list even a small selection of recent popular television series, films, documentaries, novels and tourist attractions drawing on the past, in addition to numerous non-fiction historical works aimed at a large readership. Needless to say, all these portrayals of the past vary enormously in authenticity, which is extremely difficult to attain even superficially, and even if one tries: indeed, it seems to me quite difficult to know what ‘authenticity’ really involves. For example, Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette (2006) was much criticised, but also applauded, for showing her as her contemporaries might have perceived her, using some of the conventions of 20th century fashionableness within an otherwise elaborate historical reconstruction.

There is a far more serious issue than surface authenticity in clothes, objects and dialogue. This is that many purveyors of history — either by ignorance or indifference, or through trying to be accessible to a modern audience, or by trying to propagate an acceptable message — efface the cultural distance between past and present, replacing it, in David Lowenthal’s words, with the ‘trivial, inchoate and ephemeral’.[14] Hence they perpetuate stereotypes, caricatures and bowdlerized distortions. Warwick Castle’s ‘Dungeon Experience’, for example, offers ‘the more gruesome aspects of our historic past in an appealing and fun manner.’ Some attempts by curators to provide a feeling of authenticity — for example, by incorporating dirt, shabbiness or smells — have been disliked by customers. Real and fake are merged indifferently. A few months ago, I visited ‘George Washington’s birthplace’ in Virginia, and discovered it had not been built yet: the promoters had found plans of the Washington family farmhouse, which had long disappeared, and were planning a reconstruction.

A major recent study concludes that we are now ‘surrounded by monuments and relics we can barely understand.’[15] In general, there is an attempt to push the past into accessible and attractive modern moulds. During the same visit, I went to the reconstructed colonial town of Williamsburg, where shops and inns are run by people in period dress, and where daily patriotic ceremonies celebrate victory over the wicked Redcoats: of course, I did not say to the friendly African-American ‘serving wench’ that her ancestors would have been on the Redcoats’ side. It would have been rude to disturb a feel-good patriotic narrative. Of course, there are very many examples of distortion caused by making the past fit our own assumptions and preferences. ‘The Devil’s Whore’ (Channel 4, 2008), a drama series set in the English Civil War, managed to avoid all mention of religion. The recent series ‘Versailles’ (BBC 2, 2016) felt obliged to present Louis XIV as a sort of proto-democrat.

In addition to the past as entertainment, it has also in recent years become a growing means of collective self-assertion, including by claiming personal or vicarious victimhood for which public recognition and sometimes symbolic or material atonement is demanded. There are now in the United States (usually the precursor of trends in Europe) public memorials to executed witches, enslaved Africans, dead astronauts, aborted foetuses, murdered teenagers, civil rights activists, cancer survivors and organ donors.[16] There are signs of similar things happening here.

National history as a road map

Why do I mention all this in the context of the teaching of national history? Because this huge diversity and availability of images and stories — whether aiming to convey messages or just to provide entertainment — forms the kaleidoscopic cultural atmosphere in which the teaching of history in schools is obliged to operate. Concentrating on the history of one country might offer a road map for navigating though this, and making it possible for children to get a better grasp of the reality of the past.

This is of course not a panacea. There is anecdotal evidence that some teachers simply use available material to provide undemanding and palatable teaching: Blackadder and Horrible Histories have been mentioned publicly. More broadly, the conventional concentration of school history teaching on the Tudors (not to mention the Third Reich) would seem to show how formal historical teaching can be influenced by the sensationalizing tendencies of popular culture. More generally, it must be the case that children’s ideas and sentiments about the past will be at least as much shaped by the ambient culture as by what they encounter at school.

Of course, there are benefits as well as disadvantages. It is a common experience for children’s (and indeed adults’) interest in history to be stimulated by visiting a historic site or a museum, or by watching a television series. But there are also potential disadvantages. Perhaps most fundamentally, trivialization and falsification of the past as a vast theme park, or costume drama, or form of social therapy, or vector for political messages, is a barrier against that attempt to understand the specificity of past cultures and societies which is the essence of real historical study. Instead, we have anachronism papered over with surface detail. To repeat Butterfield’s classic criticism of Whig history, we have ‘caricatures’ of the past pandering to the ‘ideas and prejudices’ of the present.

The kaleidoscopic presentation in popular culture of stories loosely drawn from the past and shorn of context and meaning — ‘little trees in search of a forest’[17] – inevitably fragments and confuses children’s perceptions of history. A history curriculum that is equally fragmentary can do nothing to counteract this. If we think that historical understanding needs coherence, then studying the history of a single country as it develops over time seems a good way of providing this.

What sort of national history?

If we accept that focusing on one country’s history has advantages, the question arises about what it should focus on, and whether it should be aiming to inculcate a particular national narrative, like the ‘republican’ or ‘whig’ narratives I mentioned earlier. A narrative stressing separateness, victimhood and conflict would clash with a narrative stressing unity, achievement and common identity. One could argue that this is a good thing: that national orthodoxies should always be ‘challenged’. In the words of Simon Schama, ‘argument’, ‘dissent’ and ‘the celebration of division’ should be at the heart of national history.[18] However fashionable such a view, it is evidently as one-sided to present history only in terms of division as it would to present it only in terms of harmony. The two are always present, though not always equallypresent. It would surely be perverse to emphasise, foster and even create present-day divisions and resentments through one-sided presentations, superficial stereotypes and distorted myths of the past. We deplore the abuse of history to perpetuate resentments betweennations. It is hard to see why it should perpetuate resentments within nations.

However, I am not advocating the solution proposed by the French philosopher Ernest Renan in his celebrated 1882 lecture ‘What is a nation?’[19] Renan argued that a sense of nationhood was based on memories of shared past experiences, both of triumph and of suffering, which created a collective desire to go on living together and building on that heritage. But Renan believed that the ‘memory’ of the past had to be purged of divisive elements: nations had to be able to ‘forget’, he said, as well as to remember. This is not only undesirable but ultimately impossible. History does not obediently unite us, and it cannot forever be censored. In many countries, and certainly in England, the past is a source of division, an unlocked armoury of partisan weapons.

Knowledge and understanding seem to me the only honest and effective ways of limiting the exploitation, trivialization and distortion of history – something that I imagine most professional historians believe, or at least hope. This, I realize, is a very simple prescription. But like many simple things, in practice it is very difficult. It certainly requires constant effort on the part of teachers, textbook writers, examining bodies and the whole educational establishment.

What, in general terms, should be the aims? The guiding principle — which most people I think would accept — should be intellectual honesty: to provide for children a reliable foundation for perceiving and understanding the past whose traces are all around them and indeed, as James Baldwin reminded us, within them. I believe that in English schools (the only ones on which the British government has influence) teaching should focus primarily though not exclusively on the history of England and Britain as places, societies and political communities. This should help to develop an interconnecting sense of history as continuity and change, conflict and harmony, difference and similarity — a forest for those little trees. Concentrating on one country, where knowledge of each aspect of history can illuminate others, makes it possible to gain some understanding of the workings over time of a society, a culture, and a polity. The curriculum should thus provide some of the essential knowledge and understanding of the past that citizens in a democracy need: the ability to understand fundamental historical concepts, to be aware of historical landmarks, to have some appreciation of the development and functions of institutions, to recognize important individuals. This involves learning ‘content’, including events, their causes and their consequences. Only this will allow future citizens to participate effectively in national political discourse — or even to understand it.

This does not mean there should be a single ideologically driven narrative, whether ‘Whig’, ‘Tory’, Republican, or whatever. Rather, it will be a narrative composed of many narratives. A significant example is that of Gérard Noiriel, a pioneering historian of immigration in France who forcefully persuaded Pierre Nora that immigration had to be one of his lieux de mémoire, and thus brought a crucial but neglected part of French history into the canonical national saga.[20]

I may have presented the aims of history teaching in a rather dry and soulless manner — knowledge, understanding, citizenship. This might make many teachers (not to mention pupils) groan. Is there no place for excitement, fun, emotion? Of course there is, and must be. History is an inherently exciting subject: it requires sustained effort and ingenuity to make it boring.

What about that tricky emotion ‘identity’? Many people, not only historians, will be suspicious of any attempt to harness schools to even the most innocent political project; and some will think that the fostering of ‘national identity’ is far from being innocent because it might encourage undesirable political outcomes. For that reason, I suggest that schools should aim to foster not ‘identity’ — a loose and overworked concept — but citizenship. Identity can be left to take care of itself. Given the cultural and political tendencies of the teaching profession in England (and probably all other Western countries), the use of school history to foster chauvinism and xenophobia seems, to put it mildly, a remote danger.

To foster citizenship, which would include a sense of belonging to and owning national history, is a very different and I would hope unobjectionable aim. A narrative of narratives (as in the example of Noiriel’s incorporation of immigration) is intellectually appropriate as well as being socially and politically advantageous. The philosopher Anthony Appiah — an impeccably liberal intellectual with shared African, British and American connections — spoke in his 2016 Reith Lectures of the ability of a shared national history to get people ‘feeling and acting together’. This is facilitated by a narrative of history that (in his words) is both ‘potent’ and ‘lean’. Potent, I presume, because of the feelings of solidarity that it can foster (Renan called the nation ‘a great solidarity’). ‘Leanness’ is a neat yet less obvious concept: I presume it means a narrative not overburdened with detail or interpretation, and hence flexible and adaptable enough to incorporate a variety of meanings and experiences. In short, this national history would be a shared conversation and debate, not a single imposed orthodoxy. But neither should it be merely a cacophony of conflicts and resentments, which would be a damaging distortion. Surely the simple remedy is to provide access to more than one side of the question: not to teach children to favour the Cavaliers or the Roundheads, or even Churchill over Chamberlain, but to explain why they differed.

In a liberal democracy, school history should provide the framework for Appiah’s lean and potent national narrative. I recently took part in a discussion in which a member of the audience — a sixth-former — said that as she was a Muslim with Indian roots whose family had moved to London via East Africa, she could not see how she could be part of English history. But her family’s experience illuminates of one of English history’s most important recent themes. Our national narrative is the forest in which this tree, and many others, finds its place and its meaning.

The aim is not to ‘flatter’ the present, as Butterfield put it. On the contrary. If history teaching is to help children to develop an intelligent understanding of their own time, it must consciously avoid presenting the past as simply a less successful version of the present, in which earlier generations are merely ourselves in different clothes, with fewer gadgets and less enlightened ideas. This means that the past must be presented with respect: not only its conflicts and failings but also its ideals and achievements, and its different values. This above all I think is where ‘popular history’ fails most dangerously: it cannot understand or will not accept that the past is different.

We should beware, if pursuing a progressive desire to ‘challenge’ the national narrative whether by injecting shame and apology, or merely by recovering and celebrating neglected aspects of the past, not to repeat the fundamental vice of Whig history: showing the past as the fumbling attempts of primitive peoples to turn themselves into us. Flattery of the present is an inevitable danger of using history to convey progressive messages, however praiseworthy: for it is we who decide what ‘progress’ is, and who is accepted into the approved pantheon! In that sense, history is indeed written by the winners – but winners only because we are still here. It is surely essential that children should learn that the past is indeed a foreign country, with different ideas and values from ours: a healthy dose of relativism is essential. Without that, we become incapable of understanding or past or critically assessing the present — because the present and its values seems all there really is.

David Lowenthal makes the point powerfully in his excellent book The Past Is A Foreign Country: ‘The past is integral to our being. We learn to live courageously with its totality, as aware of and alert to its defects and malfunctions as to its glories and virtues.’[21]

This reminds me of, and brings me back to, my starting point: James Baldwin’s observation that we ‘carry [history] within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all we do.’ The most ‘controlling’ history is that of our own country: teaching it and helping children to understand it is the best way of making it work for us, not against us; as a positive force, not an obstacle. Needless to say, this requires knowledge, sophistication and integrity from history teachers. But this is what society should demand and expect.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PTE or its employees.

[1] For a full analysis, see Abby Lisa Waldman, ‘The role of government in the presentation of national history in England and France, c. 1980-2007’ (Cambridge PhD, 2011)

[2] An illustration of the difference: I was recruited for an official French initiative to produce a common Franco-British historical textbook for schools, based on the earlier and well known Franco-German textbook. The French education ministry was eager; their British equivalents simply failed to respond.

[3] Famously by the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield, in The Whig Interpretation of History [1931] (New York, Norton, 1965)

[4] Pierre Nora, ed., Les Lieux de Mémoire, 3 vols, (Paris, Gallimard, 1984) published in English by the Columbia and Chicago University Presses.

[5] Butterfield, Whig Interpretation, pp v, 4, 12, 13, 63

[6] See Waldman, ‘The role of government’

[7] See R. Tombs, A. Waldman, C. Moule, Lessons from History: Freedom, Aspiration and the New Curriculum (London, Politeia, 2012)

[8] The whole process and the controversies it generated are covered by Robert Guyver, ‘England and the UK: Conflict and Consensus over Curriculum’, in Robert Guyver, ed., Teaching History and the Changing Nation State: International and Transnational Perspectives (London, Bloomsbury, 2016)

[9] New Statesman (1 June 2010). For a similar view from a weightier source, see Sir Richard Evans, ‘The Wonderfulness of Us (The Tory Interpretation of History)’, The London Review of Books (17 March 2011)

[10] Tombs, Waldman, Moule, ‘Lessons from History’, p 2

[11] See Guyver , ‘England and the UK’, pp 167-8

[12] I am grateful to my colleague Lucy Delap for this point.

[13] See e.g. Billie Melman, The Culture of History: English Use of the Past, 1800-1953 (Oxford University Press, 2006)

[14] David Lowenthal, The Past Is A Foreign Country – Revisited (Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 593

[15] Ibid., p 592

[16] Ibid., p 532

[17] Ibid., p 358

[18] Simon Schama at the Hay on Wye festival, May 2013, quoted in Guyver, ‘England and the UK’, p 169

[19] Ernest Renan, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? ed. Philippe Forest (Paris, Bordas, 1991)

[20] Gérard Noiriel, ‘French and Foreigners’, in Pierre Nora, ed., Realms of Memory, vol. I (New York, Columbia University Press, 1996).

[21] Lowenthal, The Past Is A Foreign Country, pp 609-10