International School History - TOK -
The value of history: its uses and abuses.

·     The value of history: its uses and abuses.

‘I used to think that the profession of history, unlike that of, say, nuclear physics, could at least do no harm. Now I know it can. Our studies can turn into bomb factories... We have a responsibility to historical facts in general, and for criticizing the politico-ideological abuse of history in particular.’

Eric Hobsbawm (see film 'Stories my country told me'.)

Prescribed Essay Title
Using history and at least one other area of knowledge, examine the claim that it is possible to attain knowledge despite problems of bias and selection.

November 2011 - May 2012


Having reviewed the main aspects of history’s difficulties in finding out and explaining what happened in the past, it is important to conclude with a review of why despite these epistemological difficulties, the academic study of the past and the profession of the historian remain so very important.

1. Good history is not heritage

The goal of the good historian is to find out and explain what really happened in the past. But not everyone who uses the past has such noble ambitions. What makes historians special users of the past is that they alone are concerned with making sense of the past, simply for the sake of making sense of the past. History is the study of the past in itself, for itself.


2. Good history is not easy

Real history is hard going: it is a methodical, sometimes lonely existence of reading, checking and double checking, of immersing yourself in the past and trying to empathise with the dead, of writing-up carefully and reaching qualified judgements scrupulously, whilst providing explicit, accurate references for everything you write.


3. Good history is not fiction

Finally, and above all else, good history is concerned with facts about real events that actually happened. Events cannot be invented that did not happen, nor can the chronology of these events be reversed. There are real limitations to the narratives that can be told about the past and those limitations are fixed by the facts.



Student activity – Why does it matter if people do not know about the past?

A conversation overheard in a New York bar, September 11, 2001

Man #1: ‘This is just like Pearl Harbor’
Man #2: ‘What is Pearl Harbor?’
Man#1: ‘That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbour, and it started the Vietnam War’

(Macmillan – The Uses and Abuses of History p.165)

There are many people, politicians and business leaders among them, who feel that too much time is dedicated to history in the school curriculum that could be used to teach more ‘useful’ or ‘relevant’ subjects like ICT or business studies. In a group, prepare a five minute presentation or film that demonstrates the continued importance of history in the school curriculum.


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