Why learn History?
By Natalie Bailey
07 Jul
Gavin Hannah, Galore Park author, passed away this week, and it is with great honour and great sadness that we post this blog in his memory. May his words continue to teach and inspire the love and enjoyment of history and learning. 

The question, Why learn history? has been asked many times in the past, especially by those still at school, and it continues to be an issue  considered by many at all stages of their education. ‘Why do we need to do this stuff?’, ‘What’s the purpose?’, ‘What do we gain from it?’ These are indeed valid questions and merit some consideration.

The answers, in part, stem from an understanding of what history actually is. In fact, what is History? Is the title of an important book published many years ago by the eminent historian E. H. Carr which dealt with that very subject. Over the centuries there have been many definitions of history. A few will suffice to give the flavour of what’s been said: ‘History is a true record of all events in the past’; ‘History is made up of the bad actions of extraordinary men’; ‘History is a confused heap of Facts’; for Henry Ford, history was merely ‘bunk’. The list is endless. But perhaps one of the best definitions is that given by Richard Gough writing during the eighteenth century. According to him, history was ‘the arrangement and proper use of facts, not mere narrative’. And that is a key point to note in schools (and indeed everywhere), history is not just a collection of facts or a ‘confused heap of facts’, or even any old heap of facts, but material that has been filtered and arranged.

As another famous historian put it, history is ‘not just a sequence of events’ it only becomes history when ‘marshalled by interpretive human intelligence’. In other words when looked at carefully; when considered and analysed and judgements made.

Nonetheless we must not forget the facts. They form the essential fabric of the subject. In this respect, history is a winner as there is something there for everyone. Facts are important and one of the reasons for studying history is to learn facts, to learn and understand information about the past, usually about a particular period. We study history to acquire historical knowledge and understanding.

This is where Galore Park publications come in. The three outline history books, covering British history from 1066 to 1900, offer a secure narrative account of events in Britain, but they also, and most importantly, offer guidance enabling pupils to think about what they are reading; to make judgements; to form opinions about important events and personalities; to use the factual material to present a particular case or argument. Was King John good or bad? Did the Industrial Revolution cause more harm than good? In these books, the factual material is clearly presented, but so are the skills necessary to interpret that material in an intelligent way. Such skills for history are further developed in the books specifically concerned with the analysis and use of evidence. What’s more, these skills are important for life, long after the classroom has been left behind. Thus the acquisition of these interpretive skills is a key reason for learning history.

The study of history trains the mind in several ways. Firstly, memory is developed and the more the memory is used, the better it gets. History offers many fascinating and exciting stories which are worth committing to memory.

Second, the study of history helps pupils at school (and then in later life) to approach any given body of material in an intelligent way. Skills of analysis are developed, namely the idea of breaking things down into their component parts. Imagine history as a bowl of spaghetti; analysis is like taking the bowl and picking out individual strands for close inspection. Then comes synthesis, the building up these component parts to try to create a whole picture. The spaghetti strands are placed back in the bowl, often not in the same way as before. So there emerge different patterns, different arrangements resulting in different pictures, different views of events, or different opinions.

The ability to judge material and form an opinion is also developed through coming to a clear conclusion about a body of evidence after careful analysis. The art of comprehension is sharpened, as without understanding, no sensible response to any material it can be offered.

Historical opinions on events and people vary greatly and there is much variation, too, in the sources of evidence coming into play when studying history. So pupils can learn to hone their skills of making comparisons, looking at sources of evidence and considering their differences and similarities.

Historical sources also need to tested for reliability. The provenance of the material has to be examined. What is the nature, origin and purpose of a source? Provenance must be thoroughly understood in order to assess whether or not a source is reliable. Finally, when evidence has been examined, the material should be assessed for its utility, or its usefulness for a particular purpose.

When facing any given body of information, be it historical or not, similar rules apply for its interpretation.  Skills used for historical analysis - comprehension, comparison, analysis, synthesis, judgement - can easily be transferred to other contexts. This is what makes history so valuable.

The giant narrative sweep of history is the greatest story ever told. It never repeats itself, although certain patterns of events can appear similar; it offers lessons for later generations if they care to learn them. It offers also infinite training for the enquiring mind and infinite pleasure for general reader or student alike.  As such, it is a subject not to be missed.

Gavin Hannah
Head of History and Director of Studies
Summer Fields
Oxford 1983 - 2013

Tags: 13+, Gavin Hannah, History, History for Common Entrance, Summer Fields

Share this post: