International School History - Skills - Sourcework - The usefulness of historical sources


I use the word heritage in the sense employed by David Lowenthal in his book The Past is a Foreign Country. ‘...heritage is not an inquiry into past but a celebration of it, not an effort to know what actually happened but a profession of faith in a past tailored to present day purposes.’ Heritage is everywhere: on dedicated television channels and in hundreds of successful Hollywood films, heritage sites, folklore celebrations, glossy magazines, bestselling novels and nostalgic commercial adverts. Heritage may borrow from history and may even be produced by historians, but they share a common non-historical, present orientated purpose: they use the past to entertain, to inspire, to engage, to provide identity and to sell to us, in the here and now.

Many people may do things that look similar to history and may have similar qualifications – they may teach history, direct historical documentary films, curate in museums – but these people generally are not historians. This is important because although they may do many useful things with the past – teach children, inform a wider public, preserve documents – their primary purpose is not the same as the historians. As a history teacher my primary purpose is prepare students for history examinations, this is not what historians do.

Strengths   Limitations
Heritage enjoys many of the advantages of historians of hindsight and combine these with a wider concern to communicate to a wider audience. This heritage industry often enjoys the advantage of significant financial resources to research and produce popular history.

Museums are expected to have sophisticated multimedia resources to help tell the story of the past to their audiences. Documentary film making uses feature film techniques of dramatic reconstruction and computer animation to help bring the past alive and can persuade many historical participants to provide their testimony to camera.

  Historians following Leopold von Ranke the founder of the modern study of history are the only ones concerned to ‘show the past as it really was’. Everyone else who uses the past has a less pure agenda. Only historians are concerned to study the past for the past sake alone, ignoring as much as possible the prejudices of their modern mindset.

In contrast the heritage industry uses the past for present purposes above all else – to entertain, to manufacture national pride, to educate. The enormous financial resources behind much of the heritage industry either need to make a profit or fulfill some other political or nationalist requirement. State history teachers are employed to 'engineer souls' who feel some pride or at least identity with the geographical territory they find themselves in – a national curriculum.

  School history 

Why is history a compulsory subject in most national curricula around the world? Why does the state spend so much money training and employing history teachers and commissioning textbooks? Consider the recent controversies surrounding the publication of recent textbooks in Japan, Greece, Russia and Romania?

2003 feature film of the life of Martin Luther.
How much of this scene is based on the historical record?
See a historian's perspective on it.

About I Contact Richard Jones-Nerzic