The Politics of History Teaching in England, 1870–1930

Citizenship, Nation, Empire investigates the extent to which popular imperialism influenced the teaching of history between 1870 and 1930. It is the first book-length study to trace the substantial impact of educational psychology on the teaching of history, probing its impact on textbooks, literacy primers and teacher-training manuals. Educationists identified ‘enlightened patriotism’ to be the core objective of historical education. This was neither tub-thumping jingoism, nor state-prescribed national-identity teaching. Rather, enlightened patriotism was a concept used in the development of a carefully crafted curriculum for all children which fused civic intentions alongside imperial ambitions.

The book will be of interest to those studying or researching aspects of English domestic imperial culture, especially those concerned with questions of childhood and schooling, citizenship, educational publishing and anglo-British relations. Given that vitriolic debates about the politics of history teaching have endured into the twenty-first century, Citizenship, Nation, Empire is a timely study of the formative influences that shaped the history curriculum in English schools.

Abstract only

The introduction establishes the book’s historiographical and methodological contours. In doing so, the introduction sets the study in the context of both debates about British national identity in general and popular imperialism in particular. It also explains the topicality of the book by demonstrating how, in near-contemporary debates about the politics of national curriculum history teaching, some invoke a ‘golden age’ of past practice to justify alterations to the curriculum. Through use of the concept of cultural restorationism, I argue that a deeper understanding of the relationship between educational psychology and the development of history teaching is necessary; especially so since the political construction of a golden age has led to misleading depictions of the history of history teaching.

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The teaching of history in its ‘golden age’
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Or, what was history for?

This chapter serves three functions. First, it traces the history of history teaching from the mid-nineteenth century to the Edwardian period. To do so, it draws from inspectors’ reports and contemporary literature and examines changing attitudes to the value of history education. Further attention is given to explaining the primary sources used in this study: namely, the privileging of reading books/literacy texts over textbooks, and the use of method manuals and texts on pedagogy. Attention is paid to histories of educational publishing. Second, the chapter positions these changes of attitude in the late-Victorian social, cultural and political context in order to explore two questions. Why were so many concerned about the content and method of history lessons? To what extent did contemporaneous debates about history reflect imperial concerns? Finally, the chapter introduces the concept of enlightened patriotism and demonstrates how – at a pedagogical level – educationists believed history could be used to fuse the objectives of both imperialism and citizenship.

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Educational theory and the teaching of history

Chapter Two explores the impact of Herbartianism on British educational culture, interrogating why Herbartian theorists prioritised the teaching of history through reading books. It is organised into five sections. The first introduces both Herbartian theories and key educationists, arguing that too little is known about the significance of this pedagogical system and its highly influential advocates. The second section discusses the state of child psychology in late-Victorian Britain and perceived need to gear schooling towards moral and civic values. The third examines how Herbartians thought history should best be taught in order to draw out moral lessons and thus contribute to citizenship education, especially through the teaching of chronology and empathy. The fourth section develops this analysis, demonstrating how Herbartians used history to provide a series of lessons in what they dubbed ‘race recapitulation theory’. The chapter finishes with some comments on how these pedagogical developments influenced later educational psychologists.

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National origins, seafaring and the Christian impulse

The following three chapters explore how Herbartian ideas became manifest in practice. Chapter Three argues that children were taught that the empire was predestined – that the possession of the British Empire was the logical outcome of English history. It does so through the study of three themes. First, the teaching of medieval history is examined in order to demonstrate that stories/origin myths of Anglo-Saxon settlement were taught to signify that colonisation was a core component of English historical identity. Second, the chapter analyses how deep histories of seafaring featured in historical lessons deliberately to forge identification with England as a seafaring nation. Lessons encouraged children to witness corollaries between Britain’s contemporary status as the world’s leading naval power with stories of Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and the Armada. A case study of Sir Philip Sidney is included. Finally, the chapter assesses how the teaching of Christianisation and democracy reflected contemporary tropes of imperial justification: religion, mission and the love of liberty.

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The English ‘race’

This chapter examines representations of race in historical education, in particular demonstrating how Herbartian notions of ‘race recapitulation’ influenced the teaching of other races. The chapter contrasts the differences in how ‘others’ were represented in textbooks for older children and reading books for the young, and provides a case study of how slavery was taught. The chapter begins, however, with analysis of how the teaching of English history was used to teach national development: children were intended to draw moral lessons from the comparisons of modern England and the England of past historical moments. In addition to representing racial differences, stories in reading books also focused on lessons in racial assimilation. In doing so, this chapter contributes to scholarship on questions about the relationship between empire and the construction of English and British national identities.

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Heroes, heroines and ‘pioneers of progress’ in the teaching of history

Herbartianism posited that the creation of moral, patriotic, citizens was to be achieved most effectively through the teaching of moral biography. This chapter, then, examines how history lessons were used to encourage hero worship. The first section demonstrates how heroic attributes, endemic to characters from the Anglo-Saxon period onwards, were explained to be traits of an imperial race. Secondly, the chapter demonstrates the impact of the pedagogical concept of the ‘pedestal’ – that is, children were not only intended to worship hero figures, but both emulate them and engage in acts of collective commemoration. The third section analyses representations of ‘specifically’ imperial heroes and shows how Nelson, Clive, Wolfe and Gordon were depicted as embodiments of historical progress. Lastly, the chapter makes analysis of the class and gendered dynamics of hero worship and assesses why texts for younger children were far likelier than textbooks to include stories of ‘everyday’ heroes and heroines.

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This chapter examines changing attitudes to the teaching of history after the First World War. In particular, it analyses how debates about the content and method of history education reflected interwar concerns about militarism and the effects of extreme nationalism. To some extent, these concerns were reflected in the changing content of textbooks. The chapter argues, however, that the 1920s witnessed not only the continuation of the Herbartian method in texts for young children but the uptake of key Herbartian principles by those writing textbooks. The teaching of patriotic imperial values remained important, but patriotism itself underwent a revaluation in the 1920s which was reflected in debates about how to teach imperial history. The chapter also includes analysis of the British response to League of Nations recommendations to use history as a site for peace education and international understanding.

in Citizenship, Nation, Empire