One of the most crystalline of all the purposes of school history is that of “for its own sake”. History for its own sake calls up a vision, or spectre, of a monkish student combing through an archive, or navigating piles of books, absorbed, transcended by the study of history. In school this implies a respect, perhaps even reverence for the past. There is no utility to school history under this aim, in fact calls for utility or relevance would mean that we were no longer studying history for its’ own sake, other concerns would have impinged upon it.
Lee (1992:22) states that
“the claim that history should be studied for its own sake is, then, a way of making two assertions: that history is not useful as a means to an end, but valuable as something which expands our own picture of what ends may be possible; and that to have this value, it must be genuine history, not the practical past in disguise”.
This purpose is the most brittle, and breaks at first examination. Firstly, no history student can claim that they are always transcended in the study of history. Lawrence Stone (quoted in Evans 2000: 122) painted a positively earthly picture of the historian when, excusing some of his own errors, he wrote,
“when you work in the archives, you’re far from home, you’re bored , you’re in a hurry, you’re scribbling like crazy”
Secondly, it is not realistic to transpose the picture of the indulgent leisure of an “ante-bellum” Edwardian scholar over the image of the world today, where the post-graduate history student is looking for his or her next source of funding, and where school children want to know what jobs history GCSE will help you get.
Thirdly, the assertion that history should be taught for it’s own sake hides two assumptions, which we will also note below, in connection with the purpose of school history for factual transmission, namely; (1) that history exists as one “history”, and therefore available to be studied “for its own sake”, and (2) that history itself has no utilitarian purpose other than its own purpose of, finding the truth
The first I will deal with below when talking about the epistemological simplicity of the related view of the “grand tradition”, The second fails when we realise that, in reality, from the Italian Duke sponsoring a history to the guide to the past a modern “historic” market town, history has always had a utilitarian purpose. These objections, along with the lessons of the linguistic turn, show that Lee’s practical past is therefore always present in history, consciously or subconsciously, and that “real history” neither exists, nor has its “own” sake. Even Lee’s history is not studied for its own sake, but for the sake of a “transformation” in the student,
“the reason for teaching history is not that it changes society, but that it changes pupils” (author’s emphasis) (Lee 1991:43).
What ramifications do these hidden assumptions and the arguments above have on the nature of school history? Slater accuses history for its own sake of becoming a
“slogan used by the educational right wing, striving to divert students of history away from uncomfortable critical skills which question and challenge assumptions, rather than transmit values” (Slater 1992: p.47),
whilst it is usually wiser to subscribe to the “cock-up” rather than the conspiracy theory, Slater’s point is demonstrably a valid one, although not necessarily one that should be attributed solely to the machinations of the right wing. A Labour party MP, in a recent Fabian Society press release,requested that history be taught as follows
“Telling the story of empire as fact rather than good or bad thing has an important role to play” (Fabians 2005).
History for its own sake is therefore a cover story for “The Grand Tradition”.
References available when I’ve finished the essay, got time, or indeed on request!