But WAS it history? E.H. Carr and history curricula

I’m particularly interested when history education stakeholders suggest they teach students to ‘[do something] like a historian’. ‘Historian’, of course, is a rather slippery term. I assume, however, that in such claims ‘historian’ is usually being defined as something like ‘an expert in academic history’. I’ve argued elsewhere that often such claims by curriculum designers are in fact largely rhetorical flourishes. When the ‘[something]’ the students are doing is scrutinised, it may well bear little relation to what experts in academic history actually do.

In this post, however, I want to concentrate on when history education stakeholders do attempt to substantiate their claims about teaching students to ‘[do something] like a historian’, and why history teachers might need to employ a healthy scepticism about the warrant for such statements.

The first question to consider when encountering such claims is: ‘well, OK, but which historian?’ In terms of how and why academic historical enquiries are conducted, the discipline is extraordinarily diverse because of a lack of commonly agreed canons of knowledge, substantive objects of study, technical methods, theories, and approaches. As the historian and theorist of history Mary Fulbrook noted, ‘the very plurality of approaches in history suggest there is in fact no single disciplinary approach’.[i] Such plurality presents possible dangers for history curriculum designers if they treat any single historian’s work as representative of the historical discipline writ large.

For instance, as a first-year undergraduate attending a compulsory module on historical methods, I was enthralled by E.H. Carr’s What is History?[ii] Carr’s relatable images of buzzing bees, fishmongers’ slabs, or Jones’ car crash pithily distilled for me what otherwise may well have been forbiddingly arcane aspects of historical epistemology. In many ways, the book inspired my continued fascination with theory of history. I went on to refer to Carr in my PGCE interview, employ some of his imagery in my lessons, and reference What is History? in my writing.[iii]

Carr’s book hasn’t only been influential for me. In the years 2004 to 2013, the single most cited historiographic work by history-teacher researchers in Teaching History was What is History?[iv] Furthermore, in the same period the two most influential articles on causation in Teaching History both cited Carr.[v] In so doing, the authors went on to make claims such as what constitutes ‘better history’. Nor does Carr’s hold on the history-teacher imagination appear to be significantly waning. In the last couple of years, a number of Teaching History articles on causation have heavily drawn on What is History?[vi]

So, what’s the problem? Re-reading What is History? recently I was struck by how often Carr presents highly contentious claims regarding historical causation as if they were unproblematic. In fact, Carr’s tenets of causation were of a very particular, Marxian variety. For example, Carr claimed:

  • All historical arguments revolve around the prioritisation of causes by relative importance.
  • Historical causal explanation should appropriate the methods and logic of the sciences.
  • Moral judgements – presumably including ascriptions of individual responsibility for inarguably horrific events – should be avoided.
  • Counterfactualism is a ‘parlour game’ and ought to be steered clear of.
  • Supra-personal causes are necessarily more important than individual actions or chance happenings.
  • Important historical causes are those that can be generalised to inform our actions in the present, meaning unique events from the past can be dismissed.

I don’t have the time in one blog post to detail all the possible objections to these claims. Suffice it to say that, first, Carr often prescribed rather than described what historians actually do. Famously, for instance, in one of his own works of history Carr ignored his own advice and indulged in an exuberant counterfactual hypothesising what would have happened to the USSR had Lenin lived longer.[vii] Marwick highlighted Carr’s propensity for prescription when noting Carr’s book ‘ought to have been titled What E. H. Carr Thought History Ought to Be’ and that it contained ‘many misconceptions’.[viii]

Second, even if the claims did describe Carr’s practice or the practice of Marxians more generally in the mid-twentieth century, such views are at least contested by many historians employing any number of other interpretative frameworks in the early twenty-first century. Indeed, Fernández-Armesto argued Carr’s arguments ‘now seem old-fashioned; but they were probably already rear-guard actions in their day and can be set aside’.[ix] Similarly, Maza noted Carr’s views regarding causation ‘have been roundly criticised by later historians and philosophers of history as a severely restrictive view of causality’.[x] Perhaps due to these and other issues, in recent times history-teacher researchers in Teaching History have also begun to approach Carr more critically.[xi]

The case of What is History? exemplifies some of the profound difficulties for the history curriculum designer aspiring to ‘recontextualise’ academic history in the secondary classroom. Academic history is so diverse that it is incredibly difficult to make general claims about what historians do.

On the one hand, we can make claims that are generally true but pedagogically banal. A statement such as ‘historians write about the past’, though accurate, is unlikely to drive rigorous curriculum design. On the other hand, if we try to be overly precise, curriculum designers risk misrepresenting the catholic nature of the historical discipline by making claims that may be useful to particular ends in the classroom but are hotly contested by academic historians.[xii] While, for example, a discussion regarding the prioritisation of causes may well be a failsafe way of generating class debate, there are some historians who’d argue that it is simply not possible, let alone desirable, to order causes in this way. [xiii]

The curriculum designer who is serious, therefore, about making claims about ‘what historians do’ needs to tread carefully. For example, drawing on any one theory of history may be problematical. First, such a work may lack empirical warrant for its claims about historians’ practice. I’d argue that any general tenets drawn from a book such as What is History? need to be cross-referenced against authentic causal explanations in the specific historiography you are teaching. Are Carr’s claims confirmed or contradicted by the authentic causal arguments you encounter in your preparatory reading for a causal enquiry on, say, why World War I broke out? If one were to read, for example, The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark you would find a very different model of causation to the one Carr prescribed. [xiv]

What’s more, substantiating claims about ‘what historians do’ needs to be reiterative process. The discipline of history is itself a historical phenomenon. Certain claims which may have encapsulated historians’ practice in the 1960s are less likely to do so in the 2020s and are sure to change in the future.

Finally, in the laudable drive to introduce scholarship into the classroom we need to guard against an unfettered relativism. We can’t necessarily accept any one historian’s work as an influence on our planning or as a model for our students if their only qualification is that they are ‘a historian’. Such an approach risks admitting into the classroom some seriously shoddy works of history as judged by that author’s peers.

All this is not to say that the curriculum designer can’t draw on Carr in their planning. I simply mean that in such cases the planner might want to substitute the indefinite article (e.g. ‘like a historian’) with the definite (e.g. ‘like the historian E. H. Carr’). In other words, when drawing on a highly selective sample of the discipline there needs to be a clear rationale as to why that particular work was chosen ahead of others. Perhaps, for example, you’re deliberately seeking to craft a causal enquiry question in your Key Stage 3 curriculum which clearly demands the prioritisation of causes, forbids counterfactualism, and privileges supra-personal conditions. In such a situation, drawing on Carr would be justified so long as the planner recognised the enquiry represented a niche vision of academic historical causation.

An overreliance on Carr’s narrow view of historical causation, however, runs the risk of enshrining a selective and outmoded version of causality in history curricula in England. To avoid such dangers, the other causal enquiries your students encounter in their compulsory secondary history education could deliberately induct them into different causal models that other theorists of history suggest or historians employ.[xv] Perhaps, for instance, the next causal enquiry students investigate could be designed to specifically focus on short-term, individual actions and incorporate counterfactualism? Only then, in my view, would one be able to say they are ‘recontextualising’ academic historical causal explanation in a way that acknowledges its great variety.


[i] Fulbrook, M. (2007). Historical Theory. London: Routledge p.7

[ii] Carr, E. H. (1990). What is History? London: Penguin.

[iii] For example, Carroll, J. E. (2019). Epistemic explanations for divergent evolution in discourses regarding students’ extended historical writing in England. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 51 (1), p.115.

[iv] Fordham, M. (2016). Realising and extending Stenhouse’s vision of teacher research: the case of English history teachers. British Educational Research Journal, 42(1), p.145.

[v] Measured by citations made by later authors in Teaching History. Chapman, A. (2003). Camels, diamonds and counterfactuals: a model for teaching causal reasoning. Teaching History, 112, 46-53; Woodcock, J. (2005). Does the linguistic release the conceptual? Helping Year 10 to improve their causal reasoning. Teaching History, 119, p.6.

[vi] For example, Stanford, M. (2019). Did the Bretons break? Planning increasingly complex causal models at Key Stage 3. Teaching History, 175, 8-14; Ford, A. (2020). Changing thinking about cause: focusing on change and continuity to refine students’ causal thinking at GCSE. Teaching History, 178, 44-54.  

[vii] Carr, E. H. (1958). Socialism in One Country, 1924-26, Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan p.151.

[viii] Marwick, A. (2001). The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language. London: Palgrave.

[ix] Fernández-Armesto, F. (2002). Epilogue: What is History Now? In D. Cannadine, (Ed.), What is History Now?148-161. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan p.157.

[x] Maza, S. (2017). Thinking about History. London: The University of Chicago Press p.172

[xi] For example, Benger, A. (2020). Teaching Year 9 to argue like cultural historians: recasting the concept of empathy as historical perspective. Teaching History, 179, 25-35; Olivey, J. (2019).What did ‘class’ mean to a Chartist? Teaching Year 8 pupils to take seriously the ideas of ordinary people from the past. Teaching History, 176, 60-71.  

[xii] Van den Braembussche, for instance, argued such an approach to historical causation would ‘run the risk of freezing historical explanation in a kind of Procrustean bed that would present a glaring contrast with the present remarkable pluralism in the practice of explanation’ Van den Braembussche A. A. (1989). Historical explanation and comparative method: towards a theory of the history of society. History and Theory, 28 (1),p.1.

[xiii] See, for example, Rigby, S. H. (1995). Historical causation: is one thing more important than another? History, 80 (259),227-242.

[xiv] Clark, C. (2013). The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to War in 1914. London: Penguin.

[xv] An accessible summary of some of the different models is in Paul, H. (2015). Key Issues in Historical Theory. London: Routledge.

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