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

·     The value of history: its uses and abuses.

Good history is not easy

‘‘...there is no doubt that the old history, traditional history, is hard. Hard – but exciting precisely because it is hard."  
Gertrude Himmelfarb

What you are learning to do in IB History Paper 1, to analyse and evaluate sources is not easy. In learning to write essays in Papers 2&3, to structure a coherent account about the past that is persuasive and well supported by the facts, is intellectually challenging.

That the IB expects the Extended Essays and Internal Assessments to be fully referenced with sources acknowledged is a highly time consuming process. You may not be a historian, but you are beginning to replicate the skills that historians use.

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. As the French author Flaubert once said, ‘Writing history is like drinking an ocean and pissing a cupful’. I know I could not do it, but I admire those who can.

Prescribed Essay Title
Examine the ways empirical evidence should be used to make progress in different areas of knowledge.

November 2009 - May 2010



The American historian William Dunning discovered through careful archival research and comparison of handwriting that Andrew Jackson’s (left) first message to Congress had in fact been drafted by George Bancroft. How much time must this comparison have taken? How many samples of handwriting had Dunning reviewed? The end result is relatively trivial but it is also central to the historical process because ‘it is not only new it is also true.

The uncovering of new truths is a significant part of what history does. It is a cumulative process and over time we come to know more about the past than we once did.


It is far easier not to bother with monotonous archival research or to write about the past as if the people of the past were just like us. It is far easier not to provide detailed footnotes or to just select the lessons of the past because they suit our present needs.  When those in positions of political power or economic influence tell stories about the past to justify their actions, it is only the professionally trained historian who has the real authority to challenge them.

Prescribed Essay Title
Discuss the ways in which value judgments should and should not be used in different Areas of Knowledge.

November 2007 - May 2007


It is something else that can make history hard, that historians play the role of professional sceptics, often charged with being unpatriotic or disloyal. For those in power and defending the status quo, history can be a dangerous subject that teaches that the world hasn’t always been like this, that change has happened and by implication can happen again.

Student activity – Tony Blair and Iraq – Learning the lessons of history

In a comparison likely to inflame the anti-war camp, he [British Prime Minister Tony Blair] said that appeasers in the 1930s had been decent people but had turned out to be wrong... "When people decided not to confront fascism, they were doing the popular thing, they were doing it for good reasons, and they were good people ... but they made the wrong decision... I've never claimed to have a monopoly of wisdom, but one thing I've learned in this job is you should always try to do the right thing, not the easy thing. Let the day-to-day judgments come and go: be prepared to be judged by history."'

The Guardian, March 1st 2003

• Was Tony Blair justified in comparing his decision to go to war in Iraq with the policy of appeasing dictators in 1930s Europe?
• What do think Blair meant when he said that he will be ‘judged by history?’




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