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

·     The value of history: its uses and abuses.

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. David Lowenthal makes a useful distinction in this respect in that, if the user of the past is using the past for present day purposes – whether positive, benign or harmful – then what they are doing is not history, but rather ‘heritage’.

‘‘The past can be used for almost anything you want to do in the present. We abuse it when we create lies about the past or write histories that show only one perspective’
Margaret Macmillan



...heritage is not history at all; while it borrows from and enlivens historical study, 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.’
David Lowenthal


Never has our interest in heritage and our ‘profession of faith in the past’, been as fanatical as it is at the start of the 21st century. The past provides stability and certainly in a time of unprecedented social and cultural change: the past 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 (see below).

They may borrow from history and may even be produced by historians, but heritage shares 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.

What is so attractive about the past that makes us want to buy into it?

Heritage: reworking the past to sell in the present

Because the past is central to our emotional sense of identity, the state has always sought to control how we interpret the past through, for example, national memorials, public holidays and the teaching of history in schools. As Arthur Marwick once explained, ‘As memory is to the individual, so history is to the community’. A shared sense of the past is central to our national identity, because the nation is in Benedict Anderson’s memorable phrase ‘an imagined community’.

But it is also an exclusive community; national ‘history’ is our history often defined in terms of opposition to those outside the national group. Only historians stand in the way of those who use the past as part of a patriotic agenda, because historians have the means and interest in exposing partiality and challenging the myths that often constitute the national story.

The Texas school book controversy 2010

Good history, therefore,  is one in which the historian is ‘open about their closures’; consciously aware of their present orientated prejudices, both cultural and personal but determined to remove this from all aspects of their work.  

Student activity – School history text-books

School history has a clear present orientated function, if it didn’t, I wouldn’t be paid to do what I do. But as an international school history teacher the one question I am always asked is ‘whose history do you teach? ’IB history if different to most national history as one of the key aims of the IB history curriculum is ‘The international perspective in Diploma Programme history provides a sound platform for the promotion of international understanding and, inherently, the intercultural awareness necessary to prepare students for global citizenship.’

In many parts of the world, the content of the history curriculum and writing of history text books is a carefully controlled, politically sensitive operation. For example, recent controversies over history textbooks in Japan and Turkey became significant diplomatic incidents. In contrast, in 2006, wartime enemies France and Germany brought out a common textbook written by authors from both countries and used in schools in both countries at the equivalent of IB Diploma level.

• Research the textbook controversies in Japan and Turkey. What made the textbooks so contentious?
• Have you or any friends had experience of a national history curriculum? Perhaps you still have a textbook you can bring in to class? From your own experience consider history topics that are common or compulsory in your national curriculum, but unlikely to be found in a textbook of a neighbouring country.

(Above) South Korean protesters in 2005
demonstration over Japanese textbooks.




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