Why history matters? Round Table discussion podcast


By HA, published 5th April 2010

Podcast of the round table discussion available here!

The History Matters Annual Conference in May saw the best turnout we've had for some time with a healthy and representative mix of HA members. Our thanks to all those who contributed their time and energy in delivering workshops and lectures.

Our afternoon round table on Why history matters started a vigorous debate and one we hope members will continue to contribute to through letters to HA News or on the website. This debate was podcasted and is attached at the bottom of this page.

We would like to extend a special thank you to the contributors for their thoughtful and sometimes provocative contributions.

Sir Keith Ajegbo believed history to be vital to the development of both a national and an individual sense of identity, and that good history teaching is therefore essential to ensuring that every child does matter. That knowing your own history or histories is an important aspect in understanding your role as a citizen. 

John Tosh discussed how historians are nervous of the idea of the subject's 'relevance', pointing out that the practice of using history for the purposes of social cohesion has been associated with totalitarian governments as well as liberal ones.  However, he thought public ignorance of history has produced a democratic deficit, making it harder for the people at large and politicians in particular to understand the full implications of major decisions.  He argued that historians have a clear duty to fill these gaps in public knowledge. 

Alison Kitson argued that all children, even those who did not study history beyond age 14, often enjoyed aspects of the subject and could understand its relevance. History helps children understand themselves and their world, enriches their experience of schooling, and would even equip them well for the school quiz team.

Claire Fox believed that a familiarity with history was no guarantee that people would understand the present, or that they would modify their behaviour: she cited examples of successful ‘A' level history students who have nevertheless gone to such extremes as the BNP and Islamist fundamentalism.  Calling history 'the subject that dare not speak its name', she called on historians to stop being so defensive and to stand up for history's importance in its own terms.  History, she said, should stop pandering to those who are not actually interested in it, and stop offering to solve every social problem, History, she argued, should go back to its roots as a scholarly discipline; selling history as vital and relevant will lead to poor history, which judges the past entirely by present-day standards.

A lively floor debate focused on the relevance of historical perspective to understanding contemporary issues such as immigration and migration; the extent to which history's particular strengths are unique to it; and a reminder that historical education does not stop when a child leaves school, but continues throughout adult life.

Martin Roberts, education adviser to the Prince's Trust, introduces the round table discussion.