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Looking back to look ahead: The Study of History

Tim Davies, Head of High School History, Dover Campus
12 December 2017

Tim Davies, Head of High School History at Dover Campus, discusses the relevance of History to the modern world. 

In September 2017, the High School History Department at Dover Campus hosted a public lecture that drew over 200 people. The lecture by Dr Rana Mitter, Professor of History and Politics at Oxford University on ‘How China’s most famous sage is shaping society today’, highlighted the importance of History for providing vital context for better understanding and evaluating current-day issues and events. Dunia sat down with Tim Davies, Head of High School History, to discuss recent changes to the curriculum as well as the relevance of History to today’s world.

Dunia: You have recently introduced some changes to the History curriculum at Dover. Tell us more about the changes and how they came about.

A key consideration was that we wanted the curriculum to reflect a wider range of human experiences and to promote a sense of international mindedness among our students. A new IB topic called ‘Independence Movements’ allows us to explore the emergence of nationalist movements and the challenges of newly independent states, such as India. Another new topic, Rights and Protest, looks at the history of racial inequality in the United States and South Africa. In High School, we now cover aspects of South Asian, African, East Asian and Middle Eastern History as well as European and American topics. What we have is a curriculum which better reflects the diversity of the UWCSEA community and also that of the wider world.

Dunia: What is the relevance of History in 2017? Why isn’t it enough to just follow the news?

We encourage students to read the news but without knowledge of the historical context, news stories can be difficult to follow or we can become too easily influenced by one opinion. It would be difficult to understand the situation in the Middle East today for example without having considered the causes and impact of the two world wars. The American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr once said that “History is to the nation what memory is to the individual” and I like that analogy. Furthermore, in a world where alternate facts and fake news have the potential to disrupt democratic processes, it is crucial that we are clearly able to distinguish fact from opinion. Through analysis of different types of historical sources, History students are very well equipped to do this.

Dunia: It is often said that History allows us to learn from the mistakes of the past. If so, why does the world continue to have so many problems?

Well a quick answer to that question is that maybe the world would be in a better place if more people studied History. The longer answer is not that simple. Historians would first have to agree on what the mistakes of the past were if we are to avoid repeating them. I do not see this happening soon. That does not have to mean that, in Henry Ford’s words, “History is bunk”. Take Hindu-Muslim relations in the Indian subcontinent for example, part of our IB unit on India. Students can sometimes start off with quite fixed views, but by using History to consider how and why different perspectives have come to exist in the first place, we can deepen understanding of the nature of both historical as well as present day issues. Our (I)GCSE unit on the Arab-Israeli conflict is another excellent opportunity for this.

Dunia: Do you think that History can be a force for good in the world?

Yes, absolutely, but it is important to be aware that History has the potential to be a force for good or bad. Politicians know better than most about its power. I am reminded of Orwell’s comment in 1984 that “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past”. For History to be a force for good, it is important to have a culture of openness and respect for academic freedom.

At UWCSEA we are lucky to be able to draw on a diverse range of perspectives in a community which places a high value on honesty and integrity. The study of History helps us to understand different identities and beliefs, whilst the disciplinary emphasis on evidence and reasoning helps to avoid prejudice. Finally, History’s ironic reminders of human frailties, follies and achievements, show us that we have more in common than some would have us think. For me, it lies at the very heart of a UWC education.