How much history should we expect most people to know, and what kind of history?

It is often said that history is written by the winners. You might also say that popular history is written by Hollywood, or Facebook, or whatever political enclave you are living in .. Does any of this matter


Thor May
Adelaide, 2016





This page is an initial starter list for discussing the "History" topic. The page makes no special claim to quality, and additions are welcome. 









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topics already discussed:


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Thor's own websites:

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=>Reading list: go to the end of these notes


Comments on the topic by Thor:


1. Introduction


The pitch I take in this discussion is that it is futile to expect people to “know history”. History is not like memorizing a multiplication table. It is a bottomless pit. Whose history, from what archive, when, where, for what purpose ….? The history of British military campaigns, or the history of music, or the history of medicine … In the end people will know a version of some fragment of history on some topic that happens to please them.

History, like Tolkien's "ring of power to bind them all" seems to change its complexion depending upon its owner of the hour. Our human characters are diverse and our shades of prejudice irreconcilable unless tempted by advantage or humbled by fear (luckily both of those are often the case), so even by the narrowest definition of history, as per some schoolmaster’s curriculum, history is an ever shifting but somehow familiar narrative. When somebody like Francis Fukuyama proclaims “the end of history” we know they have a bad case of hubris, and wait for a drum roll announcing the next episode of the great drama …

Winston Churchill thought he could create an unassailable national identity for Britain by writing an enormous “History of the English Speaking Peoples”. It wasn’t bad mythology, but he’d be spinning in his grave to learn who “the English speaking peoples” are today. There isn’t a country on earth where politicians aren’t still trying to play this game, and sometimes getting groups of people to kill each other over the details. So we might say that the processes of political history tend to be especially virulent. Propose a seminar on, say, the history of sewerage management (a far more important topic) and attendance will plummet.  


 2. Doing History: the critical skills of historiography


So if it is futile to expect some group of people to know some flavour of history, is it best to forget about looking at the past altogether? Absolutely not. Although any given person’s knowledge of a few bits of history may be rather accidental, in the end it is equally futile to forbid them learning about those accidental bits of history. Prohibiting history is like putting an X rating on a film: a guarantee of custom.

What needs to be taught in schools (just as it is in universities) is, in my view, historiography. Historiography is the profession and technique of assembling a coherent and balanced understanding of some aspect of the past. There can be no better training in critical thinking.

Up until quite recently historiography was not a viable proposition in schools. The resources were simply not available. History had to be a liturgy you got out of the school’s text book, its only interpreter the class history teacher. I was lucky to have quite good history teachers throughout my schooling, but now my wider knowledge of teachers overall (I’ve been a teacher trainer) leaves me somewhat pessimistic about the team of teacher + fixed text book on a national scale.

The vast difference from here forward of course is the Internet and its fabulous as well as dangerous resources. It is precisely this vast untracked jungle which can challenge students, even young students, to learn the critical skills of inquiry, analysis and evaluation which they need to navigate life.

[much more to come]



Reading List*  (other suggestions welcome)


Anonymous (31 Oct 2014) "What is history for?" The School of Life channel, Youtube online @ 

Anonymous (n.d.) "What is history?" - definitions. University of Northern Florida online @ 

Ashton, Bodie (January 3, 2014) "Stop tinkering with school history, and start teaching it". The Conversation online @ 

Bennett-Smith, Meredith (11/06/2013) Got Silk? Vikings' Refined Tastes Show Vast Reach Of Ancient Trade Routes". The Huffington Post online @ 

Camilleri, Kristian (n.d.) "What is History and Philosophy of Science (HPS)?" University of Melbourne promo' video introducing the topic, online @  

Coles, Isabel and Saif Hameed (February 27, 2015) "Islamic State takes sledgehammer, drills to Iraqi history". Brisbane Times online @ 

Compton, Nick (16 February 2015) "What is the oldest city in the world?" The Guardian online @  

Conlin, Jonathan (May 21, 2014 ) "Kenneth Clark – the last art historian in pursuit of beauty". The Conversation online @ 

Daley, Paul (22 February 2016) "Our major-cultural institutions are in crisis and our history is being militarised". The Guardian online @

Dalton, H. Scott (2006) "What Is Historical Fiction?". Visionback blog online @ 

Dunant, Sarah (8 October 2012) "A Point Of View: What is history's role in society?". BBC online @ 

Encyclopedia Britannica (1911) "What is History?" An Essay from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica online @

Fitzpatrick, Sheila (May 19, 2014) "Back in the USSR: my life as a ‘spy’ in the archives". The Conversation online @ 

George Mason University (2010) "What is historical thinking?". George Mason University online @ 

Initium Media (February 17, 2016) "The changing image of Chinese in Hollywood films". Asia Times online @

Martin, Tim (January 15, 2016) "The original Doctor Strange, John Dee". Brisbane Times online @ 

Martin, Ursula (December 29, 2015) "Mathematical winters: Ada Lovelace, 200 years on". The Conversation online @ 

Marwick, Arthur (n.d) "The Fundamentals of History". Institute of Historical Research, University of London, UK, online @ 

Meikle, James (Friday 18 October 2013) "World's oldest surviving clipper set to leave UK for new home in Australia City of Adelaide, built in Sunderland in 1864, will leave for Australia despite long Wearside campaign to keep her in UK". The Guardian online @ 

Michaels, Paula (March 25, 2014) "What is academic history for?". The Conversation online @ 

Olson-Raymer, Gayle (n.d) "History - What is history and what is not?" University of Humboldt class notes, online @ 

Paxinos, George (February 13, 2015) "Darling, I love you … from the bottom of my brain ". [medical history] The Conversation online @

Reddit (2015) "History" - Change My View forums on Reddit online @

Reddit (2015b) "How far back in history could a modern English speaker go and still effectively be able to communicate?" Reddit forum online @ (the embedded Youtube link on original Shakespearean speech is also great)

Rieff, David (2 March 2016) "The cult of memory: when history does more harm than good - It is a truism that we must remember the past or else be condemned to repeat it. But there are times when some things are best forgotten". The Guardian online @

Schudson, Michael (May 4, 2015) "The right to know vs the need for secrecy: the US experience".The Conversation online @ 

Taylor, Tony (September 12, 2013) "Culture wars II: why Abbott should leave the history curriculum alone" The Conversation online @

The Conversation - search index for "History" (many articles) online @

Wikipedia "Historiography". Wikipedia online @ 

Wikipedia (2014) "Batavia (ship)". Wikipedia online @ 

Wikipedia (2016) – topics referring to “History” : indexed @    

Wikipedia (2016) "What is history? [E.H. Carr]". Wikipedia online @ 

Wolfram, Stephen (December 10, 2015) "Untangling the Tale of Ada Lovelace". [history of science: recommended] StephenWolfram blog online @




Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia to England in 1972).


How much history should we expect most people to know, and what kind of history?  ©Thor May February 2016


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