The Discovery that Could Change History Schooling:


After I left classroom teaching in 2010, I set out to understand why my teaching—and history schooling in general—seemed so ineffectual. During seven years of intensive investigation, I discovered a fatal flaw at the heart of history education: Unlike other school subjects, history education lacks general principles of knowledge.

If you stop to think about it, you will notice that school subjects other than history are based on teaching students principles like addition and subtraction in mathematics, spelling and grammar in language, and photosynthesis and gravity in science. Such principles describe how the world works and thereby provide knowledge useful in the future.

History is different.

History lacks equivalent general principles of knowledge; they aren't found in the places where basic principles of intellectual disciplines are normally identified, in textbooks, content standards, and formal programs of instruction like Advanced Placement history courses. (See: The history profession doesn't recognize general principles of history.)

Would you agree that schooling exists to impart important knowledge of the world that can help students and society to function effectively in the future?

Without principles of knowledge to impart, history schooling is left to teach students about one-time events from the past that have little or no relationship to the present or future. Without principles applicable to the future, history schooling is unable to fulfill the purpose of education like other school subjects do.

History educators commonly try to compensate for history schooling's lack of subject-matter knowledge applicable in the future by emphasizing skills knowledge instead: critical thinking skills or the job skills of professional historians. Other core school subjects also have their critical thinking skills and professional practices, but in these other subjects, general principles form the foundation of learning because knowledge of how the world works is the necessary prerequisite to critical thinking. In history schooling, the foundation is missing.

Do principles of historical knowledge exist?  

It's unlikely that history would be the only intellectual discipline not to have them. The fact is, history has been supplying humans with important principles of knowledge since at least the 24th Century BC when the Greek historian Thucydides published his History of the Peloponnesian War, and the Chinese scholar Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War.

Is there any doubt that humans tend to position themselves along a political spectrum that ranges from conservative to liberal, or that people exhibit a tendency to fear, dislike, and mistreat people from groups different than their own? Such realities are grounded in the consistency of human nature and revealed through the historical record, which makes them general principles of history. (See: Twenty examples of general principles of historical knowledge.)

The consequences:

History education's inability to supply knowledge useful in the future does much to explain why history occupies a deeply inferior position in the schools relative to the other core subjects of mathematics, language, and science. (See: Comparison of core school subjects.)  

More important, history education's reluctance to impart principles of historical knowledge explains why society finds it so difficult to learn from the past.  As a result, society is "condemned," as Santayana put it, to keep repeating mistakes of the past.


To summarize:

1. The purpose of all education is to impart important knowledge useful in the future.

2. Consequently, this is also the purpose of history education.

3. Most history education focuses on relating one-time events from the past that have little or no relationship to the present or the future.

4. Therefore, history education is largely unable to fulfill the purpose of education.

After examining the evidence, I've concluded that:

a. The rightful purpose of history education is to impart knowledge of the past that can inform judgment in the future.

b. General principles of historical knowledge can help history education to fulfill this mission.

-Mike Maxwell, July, 2017

For related discussions, visit:

Future Focused History

What to teach and how to teach it

Coming soon, a book by Student's Friend founder Mike Maxwell:

Future Focused History: Rethinking the Role of History Education in Society

© 2001-2018 Michael G. Maxwell, Maxwell Learning LLC

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