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What is Historiography - and why is it important?

Tony Taylor
What is it?
Some time ago, at a professional development meeting, a teacher of history asked, with
some bemusement, 'What is historiography?' which set me back a bit. On reflection, I
realised that it was a fair question. Most primary school teachers would not have
encountered the term in any formal way. Moreover, many secondary school teachers of
history, who may or may not have at least a sub-major in history, might not have come
across historiography at university or college since it is normally covered at third year level
- in a history major.
So, just to clear things up a little, I have written this short article as an introduction to
historiography.
Historiography is the study of how historians and others interpret the past - mainly as a
study of their writing. It is a fascinating area of debate and argument about previous and
current representations of the past.
Historiographical discussion constantly surfaces in a way that is directly relevant to public
debate and to classroom activity. For example, an Australian historiographical controversy
is the 'Black Armband' debate about interpretations of indigenous history. More recently we
have had the History Wars, a follow-on to the Black Armband debate.
In primary schools, for example, historiographical issues are raised every time a class
looks at Ned Kelly and examines how he was described, either by past writers or by
current writers, or by both.
And, at the more senior level, for example, this school-based approach to historiography
has been formally recognised and utilised in Victoria, where representations of the past are
discussed, in basic form at least, at year 12 level in the Victorian Certificate of Education,
as well as in New South Wales, where selected Year 12 students take an Extensions paper
for their HSC. In New South Wales, over two thousand NSW students take this history
extensions paper every year. The examination is two hours in length and has only two
questions, allowing students to focus on the historiography of the particular period they
have studied with their teachers.
Why is it important?
Because understanding historiography is to do with understanding about how the past is
represented, it can be argued that, to be on top of their professional game, history
teachers, at all levels, really need to have a reasonable understanding of how individual
topics that they are teaching have been approached in the past and how they are being
explained in the present. This has parallels with science teaching where classroom teachers
really need to be aware of former views of the discipline and of recent scientific advances,
to prevent their students being taught out-of-date scientific ideas. Out-of-date history has
about as much value as obsolescent science.
What does this mean? It suggests that primary and lower secondary teachers of history
should be familiar with the more notable aspects of contemporary scholarship in their
chosen topics and senior secondary school teachers need to be current in a broader and
deeper understanding of the relevant historiography.
And this does cause a problem for current classroom practice since what little research has
been done in this area suggests that far too many middle and late career teachers are
teaching what was taught to them a generation or so ago, if indeed they studied history at
all. The consequence, for the students of these teachers, is that advances in

historiographical knowledge that have taken place over the past twenty or thirty years may
be all but ignored at the classroom level.
Finding Out More
So how do busy teachers find out quickly whether they are up to date or not?
The answer really lies in several different sources.
First, professional associations such as the local History Teachers' Association often carry
historiographically-based articles and updates in their journals. See the History Teachers'
Association of Australia website for your local connection http://www.historyteacher.org.au/
Then there are the Arts pages of the major newspapers and magazines which frequently
carry book review and feature articles that also update the reader on current controversies
in history.
Third, a quick Google search will reveal a huge number of websites where, if a teacher sifts
through and sorts out the wheat form the chaff, he or she can not only find out what's
what historically, but can also find useful material to use in the classroom as a basis for
exploration and discussion. For example here are two good sites that summarise the main
features of historiography:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historiography
http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761555707/History_and_Historiography.html
and here, for example is an interesting and usefully short article by David Montgomery on
the historiography of the American West:
http://members.aol.com/profdavidmont/turner.htm
And here is a personal (1994) review by Steve Smith in Europe-Asia Studies of the
historiography of the Russian Revolution:
http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m3955/is_n4_v46/ai_15654712/pg_2

Finally, several publishers produce distilled histories that are useful for teachers who
want a quick introduction to a given topic in history. In my view the two best of these
are the Very Short Introduction series by Oxford University Press
(http://www.oup.co.uk/general/vsi/) and the Cambridge University Press
series Perspectives in History
(http://www.cambridge.edu.au/Education/Secondary/Series.asp?
SubjectID=41&SeriesID=104). The former is aimed at general readers and
contains useful historiographical summaries and the latter is a series aimed at Year 12
students and each book contains a chapter on the historiography of that particular
topic which is a good starting point for teachers who may be a bit out of touch with
the latest developments.