Why reading History is so difficult

In 2014, a teacher called Kate Hammond wrote an important article called, ‘The ‘knowledge’ that flavours a claim’. (You can download it free here.)

As with most things, it is worth reading in its entirety.

One of the key points Kate makes is that the difference between an A* response (or a ‘9’ in new money), and a less-impressive answer, is the pupil’s grasp of substantive historical knowledge.

The brilliant Michael Fordham explains what ‘substantive historical knowledge’ means:

Substantive knowledge refers to knowledge of the past: people, events, ideas, and so on. 

If, say, we are talking about the rise of Hitler, substantive knowledge might refer to ideas about ‘democracy’, ‘public opinion’, ‘the Right’, the Establishment’, ‘the military’, ‘the Depression’ and so on.

These things all have specific meanings. They may seem obvious to us – but they are far from obvious to most (nearly all?) pupils.

My argument is that substantive knowledge is not only important in writing, it is equally important in reading.

Let me give you an example:

This short extract is from David Reynolds’, ‘America: Empire of Liberty’. It is a general history of the USA.

Task 1: Read it and see what you glean from it. 

Reynold (1)

Task 2: Now consider the substantive knowledge you need to make full sense of it. (Or, a shortcut: read below.)

  • FDR = President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (and all the context that comes with his presidency)
  • Wilson = President Wilson, context of WWI, League of Nations, self-determination etc.
  • Survival of democracy = why is democracy under threat at this time? (Hitler, Mussolini etc.)
  • the Depression = a specific thing, worldwide but also particular in its impact on America
  • disenchantment = What does this mean? Why does this matter?
  • Hemingway (+ quotes) = who is he and why does he matter?
  • Wall Street = why does one street matter so much…?!
  • scapegoated = term can be used generally, but re WWI, can be used in terms in context of Treaty of Versailles, the ‘international Jew’ etc.
  • foreign policy = policy in dealing with other countries (who makes this? is it written down? what do you mean, ‘policy’? etc.)
  • Senate = is the Senate = Congress? Is it part of Congress? How many people are in the Senate? What’s their relation to the President? How does the Senate differ from the House?

And it goes on and on.

This is not an original point. But I always find examples useful in trying to clarify my thinking – and someone else might too.

This is not to say I think we should shy from challenging texts. Quite the opposite.

But they need to be given due time. Even in most general histories – as the example above illustrates – there is a lot to be unpacked. As a teacher, you underestimate that at your peril.


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