Will History Become History?

Leiden, a.d. XV Kal. Iun. MMDCCLXIX A.U.C.,
For the umpteenth time there is a discussion going on in The Netherlands about whether the course History should be abolished on schools. Even though I am a history freak myself, I have worked as a research assistant for several historical research projects and I read several history books per year (so, this post is by no means a critique of History as a discipline, it has its own unique and important goals), I think it should be abolished. However, History as a course is different from History as an academic discipline. History, as a course, has three goals: 1. identity formation; 2. creating empathy for individuals with a different background; 3. helping understand current events. I take offence at the idea that historians have the monopoly on providing these, and its different professed goals are at odds with each other. The reasons that I think History should be abolished are that I do not believe that historians should have a monopoly on providing education geared towards these goals, and that these goals are at odds with each other.

Firstly, History serves the goal of identity formation and creating good citizens. Originally this is also the reason why History emerged as a course on schools in England, France and Germany. Every time the discussion on the usefulness of History emerges, the same words are used in favour of History: ‘To know where you are going, you need to know where you came from.’ In other words, the goal of History is to create a national identity, to ensure that citizens are good citizens within a society. Hence History courses always focus on the great moments in the nation’s history (we conquered this, we invented that, we were colonized by them and then heroically liberated ourselves), and much less on the black pages in the countries history. There is nothing wrong with creating some sense of identity within a country, as it is only through solidarity that nations can be maintained. Having said that, I do not see why History should have the monopoly on this identity formation. If identity is to be related to more than events long past, or to skin colour, it has to be related to the ideas and values which form the foundation of a society. So, philosophy should have its fair share in determining how we look at ourselves.

The second goal is fostering empathy, that is, learning to look through someone else’s eyes. Of course, this goal is completely at odds with creating a national identity. Either you build up an identity, which sets the ‘us’ apart from the ‘them’, or you teach children empathy, and you tear down the wall that separates human beings. But you cannot have both. Yet, of course it is good to teach children to look through the eye of others, either in the form of historical figures, or in the form of different cultures. In a highly connected world, we better learn to accept that there are different cultures, which we have to respect/tolerate (after all, we cannot go to Beijing to kindly ask them if they could please Westernize, although the West tried that, #BoxerRebellion). However, again, why should History have the monopoly on this? I believe anthropology has plenty to say on this topic. Similarly, philosophy has a lot to say about this too. Empathy should not be equaled to blindly accepting all kinds of cultural practices in our country (genital mutilation, anyone?), so we need to teach children about ethics, to help them decide what we can tolerate, and what we cannot tolerate in a free society.

The third goal of History is helping understand current events. This goal surprises me most of the Historic enterprise. Historians do not actually believe that you can learn from events in the past, they call this idea ‘historicism’. Neither do historians have the methodological tools to learn from the past. Historians believe that every event is a unique ‘snow flake’, they believe in contingency and not in comparability. This is also apparent from the History program I followed, we learned about different ages, the neolithic, Greeks, Romans, middle ages, renaissance, enlightenment, and then the modern world after WW1. Then I learned about the Dutch Golden Age and the Vietnam War in two special modules. All these eras were unique, they are categorized on the basis of different types of (idiosyncratic) behaviour. However, if the goal of History is to teach children how to understand current events, the ‘erafication’ of history is utterly useless.

The social sciences, partly using historical evidence gathered with historical methods, are far more apt to help students understand current events. Rather than looking at different eras through the lens of history, children should be looking at history using different assumptions about how humans work. To understand current human behaviour children need to know the different approaches taken by economics, political science and sociology. They need to know about rational choice, bounded rationality, socialization, institutions, agency and structure. I am thoroughly convinced that any social science topic can be studied through the lens of different assumptions about human behaviour. I am also thoroughly convinced that teaching children about how to think about human behaviour is far more useful to help them understand current events than by simply teaching them about some events, and why those events happened according to one academic discipline only. Arguably this is something which should only happen in the last three years of VWO (the level preparing for university) due to its difficulty.

Of course, certain particular events still deserve particular attention, particularly the holocaust and World War II. But apart from this particular event, I think learning about absolutism in general is more useful than learning about Hitler alone. Children should absolutely learn about the horrors that can be caused by radical dictators and demagogues. Yet, historians do not have a monopoly on understanding autocracy, war, and genocide.

Moreover, the goal to make children understand current events is at odds with the goal of nation building. In order to understand current events we probably have to go beyond official government statements. Critical thinking is absolutely required, but not always welcome. For example, Dutch soldiers committed war crimes for the same reasons as other soldiers did, yet the Dutch government is still very hesitant to address this issue. So, either we build an identity, based on the presumption that ‘we’ are good, and ‘they’ are different, or we present a critical curriculum based on the ruthless questioning of official accounts. Again, we cannot have both.

Either way, I do not see why History should get the monopoly on helping children to understand current events. Understanding current events also requires a comparativist view, something which Economics, Political Science and Sociology have developed tools for, and History has not. So even though I loved History as a student, and still love reading works from the academic discipline, we cannot learn from History about how humans ‘work’ alone. However, we can learn from history how humans ‘work’, using the social sciences and History.

In short, I think History is a flawed course. It cannot create an identity, foster empathy and help understanding current events at the same time. We need to make decisions about our priorities. I would argue for a course on national history, which contains why The Netherlands is so amazingly awesome, the black pages in our history (and how we should learn from those to become even more awesome),  and Dutch politics and law. Then, a course on comparative ethics with a strong focus on liberty, democracy and individual responsibility for others around us, but also attention for living in a globalized, multicultural world. Lastly, a Social Sciences course, which incorporates economics, political science, History and sociology. This course would aim to give children a broad overview of the different ideas about how people ‘work’, thus helping them to understand current events. At least one of these courses should address the holocaust, World War II and the atrocities committed by Communist dictators. These courses would replace the current courses History, Philosophy, Economics, and Societal Studies. The only problem would the difficulty of finding teachers who are so well read they could teach such courses…

Bottom Line: History as a course is flawed, because it tries to combine nation building with fostering empathy and furthering understanding of society. I think these goals are conflicting. Moreover, other academic disciplines should also be given the opportunity to form the curriculum of courses about society and individual behaviour. Lastly, it could be worthwhile to merge all society-related courses in three courses: Dutch History and Politics, Civic Responsibility and Liberal Democracy, and Social Sciences.

P.s.  I also think a general understanding of why humans do things is more useful than knowing some time line. If the chronology is not obvious because there is a reason why events took place in that order, I do not care for the chronology. Do not pretend you are explaining or structuring anything by putting it on a time line, you might as well be putting it on a rainfall per year scale or number of whales that have exploded in Taipei variable. Putting events to a random variable is not useful, and if it is not obvious why events took place in a certain order, time apparently is rather random. Meanwhile, a general understanding of why individuals made decisions helps understand why events took place in a certain order.





2 thoughts on “Will History Become History?

Add yours

  1. Well, maybe you have good reasons to not support that flavor of history-as-a-class, BUT (a) who said History would have a monopoly on those topics? Competition is fine and (b) I’ve run into MANY students without much idea of history (e.g., “environmental issues are really important in the 21st century”), which leads them into premature shallow analysis, a lack of perspective, and failure to understand how *very similar* debates or events have something to teach us. I therefore support history as an area of study b/c it gives an excuse to force students (and maybe their parents) to look deeper than the superficial treatment of newspapers, politicians, and other subjects.


    1. Thank you for your reply. I absolutely agree that the past should be studied, because we can learn from it. My issue with the current set up is rather that one academic discipline has a monopoly on writing the text books and choosing the topics. Like you said, competition is fine, so History-as-a-course should be based on the findings and approach of more than one discipline, I think.


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