The discipline studying history can teach

Studying history needs be about more than picking up generic skills

Historians split on how to pitch to students. “The employment value of history degrees needs to be better communicated,” except that, doing so“ should not be at the expense of recognition of the more holistic value of history study in preparing individuals to navigate complex social and ethical issues at work and as citizens,” (CMM July 5).

But Kathleen Neal and Nicholas Ferns (Monash U) suggest in a new article that history teaching must be defended on “the deep disciplinary particularities of its habits of analysis and evaluation.”

And that means teaching how to critically read primary sources, to “adopt an open-minded yet sceptical stance towards evidence; to seek the particulars of its time, space and production before exercising judgement; and to recognise that moving to judgement in the absence of such understanding is premature and flawed.”

Their paper presents ways to teach primary sources and why claims that studying history teaches “general skills” cases depend on them.

“In the absence of disciplinary content, general skills are effectively empty of meaning: without learning and practising them in the context of a certain set of epistemological stances and substantive information, students do not actually acquire the disciplinary grounding from which truly transferable skills can grow.”

Kathleen B Neal and Nicholas Fern, “Primary sources, pedagogy and the politics of tertiary history in Australia,” History Australia,19 (2022).