Hereditas Historiae

Website hosted by Irène Diependaal to foster some historical knowledge necessary to understand our present times


John Tosh - Why history matters (2008)  

‘Judging by the tenor of political debate and the coverage of the media, most people in Britain think that in a fast-moving world history has little or nothing to offer to a rational public discourse. Time and again, complex policy issues are placed before the public without adequate explanation of how they have come to assume their present shape, and without any hint of the possibilities that are disclosed by the record of the past. Historians - who should be doing most to correct this view - hold back from an overzealous concern to uphold their scholarly integrity. Yet this is a critical dimension of citizenship. To know that the past can illuminate the contours of the present is to be better equipped to make intelligent decisions about difficult public issues. Within Whitehall there is some acknowledgement of that proposition, and its practical consequences have been analysed in a number of studies of the influence of history and historians on policy-making at the highest level. The machinery of government is not my concern. My purpose in this book is to show how a more widespread understanding of historical thinking might bring closer the ideal of the critical citizen.’

‘Historical knowledge has been seen to support the proper functioning of democratic society in a number of different ways. It can be regarded as one of the most effective means by which the idea of the nation is made a reality in the minds of its citizens: as an imagined community, the stories the nation tells about itself define its character and its claim on members. This interpretation is discredited on the general grounds that it smacks of indoctrination, and more specifically because it conflicts with the diversity of approach preferred in a multicultural society. Alternatively, history can be valued as a means of explaining and justifying the combination civic rights and duties which has been handed down from the past: this programme of citizenship is highly supportive of democratic values, but here too there is a whiff of instrumentalism as the content of history is adjusted to teach specific lessons. Historians feel more comfortable with a third justification - that history provides a training in the rational evaluation of evidence and argument, on which democratic discourse depends. This is probably the only perspective on which all historians agree. For some it is the central ground of debate. Yet it amounts to no more than claiming for history a special distinction in aptitudes which are found in other disciplines also.

But there is another case to be made for history as a training in citizenship, which is closer to the intrinsic nature of the subject. Historical perspective enhances the citizen’s capacity to make informed judgements about the issues of the day, to participate in public discourse and to make intelligent use of the vote - in short, to exercise his or her active membership of the body politic. Thinking historically - or “thinking with history” - means employing historical perspective to illuminate current issues. It means identifying what is distinctive about the present, enlarging our awareness of the possibilities inherent in the present, and situating the present in the temporal flows which link it with the past and the future. In fact history is integral to the critical judgements about matters of public concern which people are expected to make in a representative democracy. From this perspective, the real justification for promoting history as an adjunct to citizenship is not ideological, but critical. British schools in the past have treated history as primarily ideological, and there are still elements of that way of thinking in the political demands for a national or multicultural content. Yet the most valuable role of history in schools is to provide students with the rudiments of a historical mode of thought which will make the world around them more intelligible. That task they share with the media, who carry a major responsibility to apply historical perspective to the analysis of news stories.

Citizenship expresses a set of political values - traditionally, loyalty to the nation state and to the ideal and practice of representative democracy. It confers a variety of legal and social rights - ranging, in the British case, from welfare entitlements to trial by jury - and it demands the performance of a range of duties, such as complying with the law and voting in elections. Some of these elements have a very long history, extending back to ancient Greece. In the Renaissance they re-entered political thought in the form of civic republicanism - a code which in England upheld an ethos of political and military service in the landed elite and bolstered their claim to influence in the state. During the Interregnum in the 1640s and 1650s, radicals like the Levellers promoted a much broader definition of citizenship, based on civic equality and extending to a majority of the adult male population. This more radical agenda was again articulated during the era of the French Revolution, whose foundation document was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789). During the nineteenth century, successive instalments of parliamentary reform meant that the electoral system began to catch up with the idea of representative democracy. Citizenship lost its subversive edge. In the generation prior to the First World War it became instead an instrument for imposing on the new electorate a proper sense of its duties and obligations. More recently, citizenship has been brought into higher relief by the unsettling changes that many of the liberal democracies have experienced during the past thirty years: in particular, the decline of class solidarities and the rise of multicultural politics. (…)

One hundred years ago “citizenship” was shorthand for the attitudes of deference and patriotism which were thought appropriate to the lower classes. By two stages - in 1867 and 1884 - the franchise had been extended to working-class men, giving them a majority of the electorate. As Robert Lowe is said to have remarked after the Second Reform Act of 1867, “now we must educate our masters”. When W.E. Forster introduced the Education Bill three years later, he declared, “on this speedy provision depends ... the good, the safe working of our constitutional system”. This meant not only teaching baste literacy, but in stilling socially responsible values in children who might know nothing of the wider political world, or who might be exposed to a subversive interpretation of it. School reading books spoke of citizens rather than subjects, but it was a passive kind of citizenship, emphasising obedience, discipline and loyalty to Queen and Empire. (…)

This approach persisted during the 1920s and 1930s, for example in the observance of Empire Day. (…) At the same time, the rise of totalitarianism in Europe intensified anxieties about the survival of democratic political values in Britain. In response, the Association for Education in Citizenship was set up in 1934 by leading Liberals and Fabians, to campaign for the explicit teaching of citizenship. As the threat from the dictators intensified, education to defend democracy was an increasingly compelling idea, but the Association did not succeed in persuading the government to adopt this policy.  

For half a century the debate about citizenship languished. It did not move centre stage until the final years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. In the course of a single year - 1988 - citizenship was lauded by the Tories and then quickly taken up by the other parties. It has remained a political buzz word to this day. What distinguishes the discourse of citizenship today from its early twentieth-century precursor is the emphasis on active participation in society. Mrs Thatcher’s vision of citizenship was certainly not passive. She had in mind a model of the citizen as the willing volunteer, ready to leap into the breach left by retreating state provision in the social services. Through their voluntary and public-spirited efforts, citizens would render assistance where it was most needed, while emancipating themselves from the dead hand of the state. This was social rather than political citizenship. It was soon overtaken by events. New Labour won a handsome victory in the 1997 elections, but on a turn-out of only 71 per cent, which sank even lower in 2001. The political education of an apathetic electorate now rose to the top of the citizenship agenda. In the nineteenth century, citizenship had been seen as a means of preventing people from voting unwisely or subversively; now the worry was that they would not vote at all. (…) A Citizenship Order was issued in 2000, laying out a curriculum for 11- to 16-year-olds.

Once the History Advisory Group got down to the detail, the central issue in the proposed curriculum was what balance should be struck between the nation, the world, and the community. The debate was heavily overlaid by ideological considerations. (…) The Right wanted strong narrative of constitutional progress and national triumph. The Left wanted a curriculum which was both wider and narrower than this - wider in taking on themes from world history, and narrower in attending to the history of Britain’s ethnic minorities (thus reflecting concerns ab out the relationship between citizenship and membership of an ethnic minority). Defining the school curriculum turned into an acrimonious debate about what should be included or omitted, usually on the terrain of identity politics. The outcome was an ungainly compromise which tried to accommodate as many interest groups as possible. The pupil in British schools experiences a bewildering sequence of short units of study – “the sushi-bar of history”. The shortcomings of this approach are widely recognised, yet even today the debate ab out pedagogic procedure quickly gets caught up in identity politics. (….)’

‘The appeal to history for authority and certainty is misplaced. It overlooks the principal public function of historical debate, which is to keep open an awareness of alternatives. In this sense, even quite acrimonious disputes are a positive asset to public understanding. All too often, the appeal of a politician’s  prescription is enhanced by the belief that there is no other solution: Margaret Thatcher’s TINA – “there is no alternative”- became a defining feature of her claim to provide strong government. The more open popular knowledge is to the plurality of historical interpretation, the less likely are people to be persuaded by assertions of this kind. What matters is the sense that these issues are open to informed debate, instead of crude stereotyping. This approach is in accordance with the most influential academic approach to citizenship today: the theory of “deliberative democracy”. According to this theory, democracy is about more than counting heads, and it is more than a mechanism for reconciling interest-groups or legitimising the elite. The essential characteristic of democracy is persuasion by argument. Public issues should be subject to public argument, and that requires a level of knowledge of the facts of the case and the grounds on which those facts can be variously interpreted. Popular debate, in short, is the life-blood of a democratic political culture. This is the context in which the relationship between history and citizenship is strongest. The case has been cogently put by the American historians Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob, in their book Telling the Truth About History (1997). Reacting to the charge that multicultural history opens the door to relativism, they retort that the true civic function of history is not national consensus but critical enquiry. The clash of historical perspectives not only promotes knowledge of the past, but also opens up a more critical awareness of the present. That is why, in their view, historical debate offers a route to a “revitalised public”. This is an argument about more than tolerance - important though that is. To have even a limited awareness of the extent of historical debate is to realise something of the range of available alternatives - alternative ways of understanding and alternative solutions.’

‘Talk of promoting citizenship - by historical or other means - can have an uncomfortably elitist ring. When Britain took its first steps towards popular representative democracy, citizenship was indeed instilled from the top. It was equated with an unquestioning patriotism, and it certainly did not promote awareness of alternatives. Citizenship today rests on a much broader definition of political participation. The ideal citizen is more than a member of a community (national or ether), more even than someone informed about other communities. He or she has a critical grasp of the contemporary world, able to ask telling questions and able to recognise the limitations of the answers given. History has a major contribution to make towards realising that ideal because of its capacity to surprise, to stimulate and to provoke.’

‘History occupies such an assured and longstanding place in our literary and visual culture that it is easy to take it for granted and to ignore its civic significance. Why History Matters has argued that historical scholarship has a great deal to offer the democratic culture of British society. lts contribution is best understood in the context of citizenship. On all sides it is conceded that the exercise of citizenship in Britain is a shadow of what it might be. Taking a considered and informed view on matters of public concern is fundamental to the actions expected of the citizen - in the polling booth, in political parties, and in issue-led association with other citizens. To be effective, representative democracy needs to be deliberative, for which a certain level of relevant knowledge and critical acumen is required. This book has sought to demonstrate that an enlarged scope for public history would be a major step towards these goals.

That there exists some kind of link between historical education and citizenship has long been a commonplace, with material consequences for what children study in school. But the link is too often narrowly conceived within a grid of identity politics, with history cast in the role of endorsing political loyalties - to nation, community or ethnic group. This approach seriously underplays the civic importance of history. lts true remit is much wider and more open-ended, committed not to a particular political vision, but to understanding the societies we live in. Without the insights of applied history, we must be content with living on the surface of things, unable to grasp how our world has come to be, or to detect the direction in which it is moving.

The first practical claim of history on our attention is as an inventory of past experience. History offers unparalleled riches in this respect because the past - even the recent past - was different from the present. Far from condemning history to irrelevance, that principle of difference is what explains history’s continuing capacity to instruct and to unsettle - by bringing accumulated experience to bear on current problems, and by reminding us of missed opportunities and paths not taken. (….)

In the words of Mark Mazower, one of the most thoughtful writers on twentieth-century European history, “understanding where we stand today ... requires not only seeing how the present resembles the past, but how it differs from it as well”.

Properly exercised, applied history also holds to the other great principle of historicism: that human institutions are explained by tracking their development over time. We cannot fully understand the features of the present unless we see them in motion, positioned in trajectories which link our world with that of our forebears. Without historical perspective we may fail to notice continuities which persist, even in our world of headlong change. (….)

So far as the health of our democratic culture is concerned, the most important feature of “thinking with history” 'is that it resists closure. To approach topical issues historically is to “step outside the box” and to entertain interpretations beyond the reach of presentbound perspectives. History certainly provides evidential weight for points of view which have currency today, but it also brings unfamiliar or forgotten angles of interpretation back into public discourse. (….)

These are some of the reasons why the historical profession can potentially provide an important public service. Historians have two tasks: to disseminate those of their findings which bear upon issues of the day, and to promote the widest possible grasp of the merits of “thinking with history”. Public history in this sense is not just an option to be pursued by a handful of publicity-seeking academics. It is a social obligation.

That its record is patchy at best is due to a combination of circumstances: the founding conventions of the profession itself, the way in which applied history has been shockingly abused in the past, and the pressures on academies to write exclusively for their peers. Opportunities to promote the public role of history have been missed. (….)

As this book goes to press, Britain's newly appointed Prime Minister* is the first to hold a PhD in history. (….) The prospects for a historically-minded citizenry lie elsewhere: with a reformed school curriculum, with a re-ordered scale of priorities in the media, and with a keener sense of the public interest among academics. The prize is a critically armed and better informed public, providing the basis for a revitalised democratic culture. ‘

The quotations are taken from: Peter Tosh, Why history matters (2008).

Note Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae (*): John Tosh meant Gordon Brown, British Prime Minister from June 2007 till May 2010.Brown was the leader of the Labour party in this period, in succession of Tony Blair. In 2010 David Cameron, the leader of Conservative party, became Prime Minister. During his first term Cameron governed together with the Democratic Liberals.  

Postscript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae

John Tosh is Professor of History at the University of Roehampton, Visiting Professor at Birkbeck University of London and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He is also the author of Historians on History (2nd edn, 2009).Tosh is the author of a classic introductory book, The Pursuit of History.

From  the website hosted by Birkbeck University of London: ‘My principal interest is in gender in modern British social history. I am interested in defining what contribution this perspective makes to our understanding of historical experience and explanation. Specifically I have worked on the history of masculinities for two decades. Initially I focused on the relationship between masculinity and the middle-class home in Victorian England. More recently I have turned my attention to the place of masculinity in the empire-building impulses of ordinary British people during the 19 th century. Here emigration has been particularly neglected, and my current research concerns the Cape emigration scheme of 1820. Parallel with this research interest, I have for many years been thinking about how the discipline of history should be presented – to students and also to the wider public. In my most recent nook, Why History Matters, I pursued the argument that good citizenship requires critical history, and that historians have a social obligation to provide it in a form which can be practically applied.’

Publisher Taylor& Francis in introducing the 2015-edition of The Pursuit of History: ‘This classic introduction to the study of history invites the reader to stand back and consider some of its most fundamental questions - what is the point of studying history? How do we know about the past? Does an objective historical truth exist and can we ever access it? In answering these central questions, John Tosh argues that, despite the impression of fragmentation created by postmodernism in recent years, history is a coherent discipline which still bears the imprint of its nineteenth-century origins. Consistently clear-sighted, he provides a lively and compelling guide to a complex and sometimes controversial subject, while making his readers vividly aware of just how far our historical knowledge is conditioned by the character of the sources and the methods of the historians who work on them. (… )’