Questions, Answers and the Teaching of History

What is it, above all, that a good teacher of history is aiming to do? Is it mainly a question of successfully imparting correct or relevant information? Most, I imagine, would say that more – much more – is at stake than this. Is it, then, primarily about developing in pupils a capacity to see patterns of cause and effect, thus enabling them to isolate the important influence or set of factors which lies behind a significant event or occurrence?

What, though, about the interrogation of source materials and the development of a sense of the shape of the surviving documentary record: is it a focus on this, and the development of a keen awareness of its nature, scope and deficiencies – together with an ability to probe and analyse the evidence – that should constitute the key focus of a good teacher’s activity? The chief aim of the teacher, from this point of view, might be to produce pupils with a keen eye for detail, and an ability to shoot down overly-ambitious theories which claim too much on the basis of what’s (not) there.

Maybe the good teacher will emphasise also that reconstruction is the historian’s primary goal. If so, then their main focus is likely be on developing pupils’ capacity to make excellent use of the medium of prose; on knowing what it is to communicate details about the past attractively and cogently, certainly; but with a sense also, perhaps, that a big aim of historical writing might be to perform something like a necromancy. For the historian as necromancer, successful writing will somehow manage to bring back into being for readers things that have died and disappeared. (Why, after all, should this be an aim only of historical novelists?).

But perhaps the truth is that history teaching that really hits the mark, and indeed much of the best historical writing too, will contain something of all of these elements.

I’ve been thinking about these issues over the last couple of days chiefly because I’ve been re-reading the autobiography of RG Collingwood. Collingwood was a renowned philosopher and Roman historian. His autobiography is a subtle and amiable account of its author’s experiences of learning, teaching and writing in Oxford in the first half of the twentieth century. Collingwood was fully aware of the idiosyncratic character of many of his philosophical views, as seen in contrast with prevailing trends among his philosophical and Oxford contemporaries. This only adds to the book’s interest.


One area in which Collingwood’s views became well-known was his philosophy of history – an area of philosophical enquiry neglected by many of his colleagues.* And Collingwood is particularly interesting, I think, on the topic of historical method, on what it is that historians should try to do when they approach the past.

For Collingwood, it is all a matter of asking the right questions. In short, the idea is that dealing well with historical evidence – Collingwood uses the example of an archaeological dig – is all about refining the questions one poses in relation to it. At a dig, you might begin with a question like ‘was there a Flavian occupation on this site?’ That question can then be divided into sub-questions, like: ‘are these Flavian sherds and coins mere strays, or were they deposited in the period to which they belong?’ And so on.


In Collingwood’s discussion, the intellectual activity of the historian in formulating problems and solutions is crucial: the historian must pose good questions, and refine them and answer them well, while making due allowance for any problems presented by the evidence, at the same time as they offer their argument.

What I particularly like about this way of seeing the business of historical research is that the onus is very much on the historian to generate their own avenues of approach, their own web of questions (and – hopefully good – answers). It is a way, that is, to cultivate subjectivity and a habit of free enquiry, informed by one’s own growing sense of how to approach the material.

This, I think, is what successful history teaching can be about. Pupils should find that they have been invited into a world of free-spirited debate and enquiry, in which individuals can begin to form and articulate their own ideas about matters of interest and substance. The centrality of posing, refining and answering one’s own questions in that process matters.

At the same time, Collingwood’s approach isn’t in the slightest complacently presentist, in the sense that it requires the historian actually to engage with the thoughts and ideas of past people seriously. The historian should try to see these ideas in context and make sense of them in their own right. It simply won’t do, he thinks, to dismiss past thoughts on the basis of contemporary opinion or prejudice and (thus) to rule out their importance for understanding past action and behaviour.

For Collingwood, then, doing history is a fundamentally dialogical activity. He sees the process of posing and refining questions in relation to the past as an important ongoing activity, not only for the writing of good history, but also for the ongoing development of the historian as a rational being. This is a point of principle I find myself happy to agree with.

*Many, though not all. Collingwood acknowledges the influence of the philosopher TH Green in this area. He mentions too how many of Green’s pupils – including politicians such as Asquith and the social reformer and historian Arnold Toynbee – made a point of applying the ideas they had learned from their university philosophy tutor in the context of their future careers. Green was known to many as a Hegelian, though Collingwood does not call him this. Collingwood does however describe the widespread opposition to Green’s work among Oxford philosophers of his own time (‘Hegelian’ ideas were, for the most part, successfully repelled at Oxford).  He also indicates his own more sympathetic view of Green and some of his disciples. These descriptions feel measured and patient, and perhaps overly so. I suspect Collingwood is culpable of characteristically English understatement at times.

Educating the whole person in Victorian Oxford

It has been a quiet Christmas with family this year. I did find a chance, though, to do some (admittedly not-so-light) reading – and recently I came to the end of a very interesting book dealing with the topic of academic life in nineteenth century Oxford. I wanted to jot down a few findings and arguments I came across while reading it, as it certainly left an impression.

The book is a kind of biography – its subject the Oxford scholar Mark Pattison, a major figure in the academic and administrative life of his university – which offers also a history of ideas and debates about the aims of education in the Victorian university. It’s written by HS Jones, a History professor at Manchester, and I was fortunate to find a cheap copy used on Amazon, as it’s an expensive – if excellent – book only available as a hardback (as here). From reading the book, I think Pattison is a figure whose ideas deserve attention in the context of debates that continue to surround the subject of education today.

The Victorian period was a time of much pioneering activity and growth in British education, and this was true too of Oxford. It was, for instance, a time when many Oxford dons found a way to bring the benefits of university education to workers, putting together extension courses and classes for those of limited education and limited means to attend university in the conventional way (link here). This is just one example of the commitment to extending the field of operation of the university that characterised the thinking of many leading Victorian educationalists. The world of Victorian education could be (and was – and sometimes continues to be) crudely – if not unjustifiably – caricatured as one of punctilious strictness, brutal corporal punishment and endless, mandatory Greek and Latin to be learned by rote. Certainly it was one in which significant economic, educational and indeed religious barriers blocked many from receiving a higher education altogether. However, it is demonstrable that this world was also characterised by the thoughtfulness, lucidity and intellectual courage of many of its leading denizens.

Mark Pattison was one such case. I warm to Pattison partly because, for him, academic teaching was less a matter of pedagogical technique and more a matter of personal encounter, whereby the student comes to see the character and intellectual interests of a teacher and is formed by this experience. This might sound a bit like the beginning of an argument in favour of amateurism or some kind of cult of personality. But Pattison – in the words of his contemporary John Henry Newman, whom he admired but later dissociated himself from – saw it rather as an important guarantor that the process of educating a mind could not resemble ‘a foundry, a mint or a treadmill’: it must be personal rather than simply mechanical.

I like Pattison’s sceptical view of ‘mechanical’ instruction, and his insistence on the necessary human element that must lie at the heart of true education. That instruction may run the risk of being mechanical, he suggested, is partly a consequence of examinations. Formal university examinations in Oxford had been introduced only recently, in 1800. Pattison feared that ‘the ascendancy of the examination was creating a new formalism in which outward attainments…would be valued at the expense of the real intellectual qualities the examinations were supposed to test’. The love of learning, he thought, ‘was degraded if it depended for its operation on the offer of external rewards’. Love of learning, of self-improvement, should be its own reward: ‘to enforce study by examination is much on a par with compelling morality by public discipline, or restraining private extravagance by sumptuary laws’. The principal defect of examinations, he argued, is that ‘the best contrived examination can only reach knowledge and acquirement; it cannot gauge character’. True enough.

Knowledge, he went as far as to say, should be sought ‘not for itself, but as a means for enlarging and building up the character’. This statement represents a clear and thought-provoking clash with a prevailing tendency in 21st century educational thinking, where knowledge of what is on a particular syllabus is presented virtually as a ‘good’ in itself, offering a means to secure exam-based qualifications.

In common with many Victorian educationalists, Pattison thought that an overriding aim of an education was to build character. Unlike a good number of his contemporaries, however, he didn’t think this could be straightforwardly achieved through the cultivation of ‘manly virtues’ in the context of athletic activities. For Pattison, it was intellectual life (properly conceived as the love of learning for its own sake) that did most to build character – and in advancing this view, he knew he would have to make his case. On the one hand, he saw that athletic pursuits do indeed help cultivate some honourable virtues: ‘keenness, vigour, boldness, skill, enterprise, readiness, hardiness, determination, solidity’. These he regarded as ‘the manly virtues of a trading and speculating people’. On the other hand, he suggested that these virtues were in danger of being ‘too exclusively honoured’, that they tended to thrust out of sight the softer virtues of ‘humility, patience, self-abnegation, prayer, devotion, charity’. (Pattison later disavowed his Christianity). Here too, I think, he has something important to say.

A final point about Pattison’s perspective on education that struck me is his view of research. Pattison is known as a key Victorian figure who threw his weight behind the (German) model of the research university, according to which a primary focus of academic life is on producing original academic studies and publications. It was therefore surprising to find out what Pattison thought the point of academic research actually was. Research, he thought, is what enables scholars to be ‘actively engaged in a process of self-culture’. This ensures the presence of a ‘philosophical temper’, which in turn is a prerequisite for meaningful teaching. In short, the point of research, he thinks, is self-development with a view to being the best sort of teacher.

Clearly this is a vision that differs profoundly from some of the standard ways in which the raison d’etre of academic research is now conceived: that is, as a means to add to, or to dispute matters relating to, the common stock of knowledge; as a means to obtain professional status; as a means to discuss or solve real-world problems. These common ways of thinking about what academic research is for belie an underlying scientism (and presentism). But this scientizing (and presentist) lens, one might insist, is not the only valid way of conceiving the point of research: in the humanities, for instance, it is arguably a cause of ongoing damage. Pattison – while stressing the importance of research – offers a different perspective on why it might be of value, both to the researcher themselves and to their pupils.

Quiz Answers from the last post:

  1. B – no donkey is mentioned in the New Testament accounts of the nativity.
  2. C – the arch was that of Titus, son of the emperor Vespasian, who became emperor briefly himself from 79-81.
  3. D – Hercules is the correct answer.

A Tragic Sequel

DfurTsKXcAIQiElSchool holidays during the lead-up to summer exams are an interesting time for British teenagers. For the canny teenager, these holidays are a chance to stay productive and focussed on exam revision while enjoying a break away from school. Even for pupils without onerous GCSE or A-level exams to face, the task of putting in good performances in the summer exam room, either with a view to impressing universities they intend to apply to later on, or simply in order to consolidate a year’s work ahead of their GCSEs, tends to be seen as a vital one.

This being the case, I did not expect much interest when I advertised a trip to see the performance of two Greek plays during the June half-term break last term. Maybe, however, I had underestimated two significant factors. First, the Greek plays in question were going to be staged in a very special location: beneath the dreaming spires of Oxford University, outdoors in the beautiful gardens of one of its colleges. Second, the headline character of one of the plays – Oedipus, as depicted by one of Greek theatre’s most brilliant playwrights (Sophocles), is among the most famous and fascinating characters in all Greek tragedy. Perhaps, though, another factor more elegantly explains the attractiveness of the trip: the tickets were refreshingly affordable!

At any rate, as you can see above, there was sufficient interest in the trip for it to go ahead, and what an evening’s entertainment we enjoyed. The encounter with Oedipus – in the lesser known sequel to Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus – was striking and memorable, played as he was by a talented North American student actor who was supported by an excellent cast. The idiosyncratic historian Robin Lane Fox has an interesting review of the play’s performance here, in which (among other things) he wonders how the lead character of the play could ‘strike a chord with readers of the Financial Times’. This was not, I have to say, a question I had in my own mind as I watched, and reflected on, the play…

Closer to my own thoughts was the happy knowledge that for all the pupils who came on the trip, it was their first taste of Greek tragedy in the flesh, and their first (though hopefully not their last) encounter with the story of Oedipus. As a new school year is about to begin, and the cycle toward a fresh batch of summer exams begins to churn into motion, I am struck by the feeling that, although their summer exam performance would probably not have stood to benefit whatsoever by going on this trip, the ‘real’ education of the students who came really did benefit in a way no day spent revising could ever have paralleled.