Why History Matters

Cards for Democracy
Published on
February 15, 2018
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Why History Matters

Richard John Harris

I was reminded recently that history in the curriculum is a particularly contentious subject. A friend, involved in rewriting the history curriculum in Croatia, said the publication of a new curriculum resulted in thousands of people protesting on the streets. I can think of no other subject that would provoke such an extraordinary response. History clearly matters to many people.

The reasons for this are readily discernible but raise complex issues. We all have memories, and our understanding of these memories  shapes who we are and how we see the world around us. History is in many ways our social, collective memory. History is not a subject that resides in the past – it shapes our present and orientates how we think about possible futures. That is the power of the past. And this power can be used and abused. We can be taught about injustices committed against ‘us’ by ‘others’, thereby perpetuating enmity and a desire for justice and revenge; we can be taught about the brilliance of our ancestors, thereby promoting patriotism and a sense of superiority. In both cases history can provide a sense of social cohesion, but at the expense of pitting us against others.

Jörn Rüsen’s influential work (2004) on historical consciousness, i.e. how we think about the past and use it to inform our present thinking, helps us to understand this more clearly. He has created a typology of historical consciousness. His ‘exemplary’ or ‘traditional’ ways of thinking encourage people to engage simplistically with the past. The exemplary past is used to offer models of how we ought to behave, whilst the traditional approach uncritically celebrates how we do things (and by implication should continue to do things). Both are based very much in an approach to history teaching that encourages storytelling, recounting of uncomplicated factual narratives, often from an ethnocentric point of view. It provides a simple model for teaching about the past, and as a Minister for Schools in England once told me ‘we don’t want children to do anything too challenging’!! However teaching a simple past is dangerous. As Walsh (1998: 47) clearly explains:

There is a belief in some quarters that history is too complicated. The problem with this argument is that if history is to stop becoming complicated then it must become simple. Then we are in real trouble, as in the minds of our students all Catholics hate all Protestants … for all time. All Jews live in Germany and are persecuted. All Indians work on tea plantations or emigrate to Britain.

We then fall victim to stereotypes and narrow our understanding of not only the past, but also the present and the future. By default history must therefore be presented as a complex subject. This is what Rüsen’s ‘critical’ and ‘genetic’ models of historical consciousness present, where the past is seen as a series of competing narratives, with sophisticated patterns of change and continuity. In turn this requires a focus on teaching history as a discipline, i.e. how we know about the past, how knowledge of the past is contested and open to interpretation. In this approach history becomes, what Michael Young (2011) calls ‘powerful knowledge’ (p.275) as opposed to ‘knowledge of the powerful’ (p.268). A disciplinary approach means we have to teach the subject in particular ways – we have to look at multiple perspectives, we have to explore how the past is constructed by using sources and examining the context in which differing interpretations of the past have been created, and see that the past is open to debate. History is not a single, simple, unproblematic story. This is an absolute essential element of teaching history in a democratic culture. Such an approach is firmly established in many educational contexts, but not everywhere – nor is it fully understood by many politicians who seek to enforce positive nationalistic narratives on teachers as a means of encouraging the populist vote.

Of equal importance however is what is taught – the content of a curriculum is hotly debated and too frequently presents a narrow, nationalistic view of the past, focusing on ‘great’ figures and events celebrating the nation state. Yet this overlooks the fact that nation states are a relatively new ‘invention’. It is also all too easy to forget that the past was inherently diverse and so history should examine that diversity. This was brought home to me in a discussion with a Polish friend – to speak of Poland as a nation is challenging because it has existed at different points in time and in geographical space. It is easier to talk of the people who lived in that geographical space at different periods of time, which forces us to focus more on a ‘people’s eye’ view of the past, and the diversity of people and their existence. In turn, this allows us to explore how people lived together, the variety of cultures and periods of extended cooperation (rather than perpetual conflict which some histories promote).

If we value democracy, then we need to value and cherish history education, but we need to accept a particular model of historical thinking or what has been termed ‘historical literacy’ (Lee, 2011). This means teaching history as a discipline and exploring the diversity of past experiences. This enables us to look beyond a simplistic past. In turn, this pushes us to think in more sophisticated and nuanced ways and to develop a more complex understanding of the present and the future.  


Lee, P. (2017). History education and historical literacy. In I. Davies (Ed.) Debates in history teaching 2nd edn.) (pp.55-65). London: Routledge.

Rüsen, J. (2004). Historical consciousness: Narrative structure, moral function, and ontological development. In P. Seixas (Ed.), Theorizing historical consciousness (pp.63-85). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Walsh, B. (1998) ‘Review: ‘Homebeats: Struggles for Racial Justice: CDRom’ Teaching History 93, 47-48.

Young, M. (2011). The return to subjects: A sociological perspective on the UK Coalition government’s approach to the 14–19 curriculum. The Curriculum Journal, 22, 265–278. doi: 10.1080/09585176.2011.574994

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