Studying History Today

Ben Sandell, Head of History at Dauntsey's, reveals the importance of studying history and the vast skills it equips students with.

With the centenary of the First World War fresh in our minds, studying history today seems more pertinent than ever. But it's not just about learning dates, monarchs and wars, although these are among the milestones that signpost its direction. History sets the context for how we see ourselves and the world around us.

For growing minds, which might otherwise accept the current situation as predestined, history helps demystify the ideologies of the 21st century, such as political theories, the role of women and attitudes to slavery. It highlights human frailty, showing that we have always made mistakes and, sometimes, found the right answer. With the advent of 'fake-news' as a potent catalyst for change, and political decisions being made by populations saturated by information and swayed by salient 'facts', the critical thinking skills fostered by the subject have never been more necessary.

Context is crucial in developing young people's empathic skills. Take sexism, for example. By today's standards, the Victorians certainly fitted the bill. Yet in the context of their time and culture, their views were conventional, conservative and reasonable - they were conforming to the rules. All of this begs the difficult question of when an event, trend or ideology becomes history.

Understanding is predicated by personal perspective: from which gender, nationality, age, sexual orientation or disability you experience the world. We are fortunate at Dauntsey's to have some pupils from different countries across the globe. This presents an opportunity to investigate different perspectives. A class might be able to hear first-hand the American view on the Vietnam War or the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance, then compare it with how it is seen in China or Russia; all of these accounts are very different but no less relevant.

History teaching at its best throws a spotlight on the past by bringing events to life. Pupils need to think beyond and around the curriculum. 'Living history' activities, such as a re-enactment of life in the trenches during the First World War, really lift key events from the textbook pages and make them real. Immersing pupils in these historical events encourages them to learn to assess evidence and build cogent arguments. There is no right or wrong when they form a view and teachers should play devil's advocate to get them thinking around a topic and a set of circumstances. It is important to teach pupils to question every assumption and every argument, to test their ideas - every answer needs to have been refined - and finally they should show why other options have been rejected. The process is about far more than remembering a list of dates and facts or simply enjoying the colourful characters they might encounter.

It is no surprise to me that history is now one of the most popular subjects to study at university or that potential employers are keen to hire history graduates. Traditionally it was believed that the logical pathway of a history student was to a career in teaching, heritage or culture. Times have changed however, and today history graduates have great opportunities in other fields such as law, journalism, publishing, investment banking and the civil service.

This is all for the good. Teaching history is about teaching people how to think. We can but hope those who study it go out into the world able to make fewer mistakes than those who have gone before.

Ben Sandell is head of History at Dauntsey’s, an independent co-educational day and boarding school in Wiltshire.