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Future of Learning

Getting Back to the Why: Why is History Such a Key Subject?

By Jeremy Hoover
Getting Back to the Why: Why is History Such a Key Subject?

The Need to Re-Evaluate the Teaching of History:

With parents who both have their PhDs within the broad field of African history, I grew up surrounded by history in Lubumbashi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire). Not only were there always mini mountains of papers waiting to be graded and days my parents were gone listening to dissertation defenses, but history felt very alive in a context where the world was shifting around me and the connections between the past, present, and future felt very intertwined and vibrant. In this context, my curiosity about history was born and then has been nurtured as I have lived in various contexts around the world, from the United States of America (Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Colorado) and Egypt (Cairo) to stints in Zambia, Kenya, Ghana, Namibia, and Tanzania before our family’s move to Uganda five years ago.

In that time, the world of information changed. When I was a child, my “go-to” person was my father for pretty much any information. He was our human encyclopedia (for all but sports facts or music post-1950). When I was in university, Wikipedia was launched. Although we playfully called my dad “Wikidad,” we knew that even my dad wasn't as smart as Wikipedia when it came down to sheer knowledge “at your fingertips.”

When I went to university and majored in history, my favorite professors didn’t claim to know everything in terms of the content. Instead, they taught me key skills to navigate this historical content. They taught me how to research, to analyze, to grapple with various perspectives, and then to synthesize them into cogent historical arguments. They inspired curiosity and encouraged/equipped me to know how to inquire about the things that interested me.

This shift from the role of a historian being a “fount of knowledge” to a “teacher of historical skills” doesn’t bother me. Instead, it demands a re-evaluation of the why of history.

In a recent post on the International Baccalaureate (IB) Exchange, my fellow co-moderator on the history platform asked this question, “What are some of the specifics, however, that you would emphasize about DP [diploma program] history in this context? Why should students take History in Group 3 in your view?” For the non-IB educators out there, the IB’s Group 3 (called individuals and societies) subjects in the DP, are human science classes like history, geography, economics, business management, etc. Students are required to take at least one, but they have many choices, depending on the school’s options. Thus, in this context of student and school choice, a re-evaluation of the why of history is also demanded.

Some Thoughts on Why History Remains Such a Key Subject:

So, in this changing world of knowledge and education, why do I feel students should do history? And believe me, I profoundly believe this! Despite history’s challenging skills, or perhaps because of at times, I think it’s so key for our students as they navigate a nuanced and complex world! 

I am also an enthusiastic teacher of Theory of Knowledge (ToK), a fantastic IB class that asks students and schools to explore why we know what we know, giving students tools to thoughtfully question the very education they are receiving. In this class, I have a list of six statements (inspired by my ToK mentor, Steve Kern, a long-time ToK educator in Colorado) that explain why I believe in ToK’s importance, feel it is practically useful for students, and encapsulate my “goals” for the course and for my students. Every year, I discuss these statements with my ToK Students at the beginning and at the end of their ToK journeys.

In this post, I will try to do the same for history, drawing some inspiration from some of my ToK statements. Here’s an attempt:

DP history students, I hope that by the end of the history journey, you are able to confidently understand/express the following:

1. History is an innately human process. Historical villains and heroes are real people. They need to be taken from their 3D pedestals and seen as nuanced human beings. Simplifying them into caricatures is potentially dangerous.

2. Understanding power dynamics is important in understanding any human endeavor and history is the story of humanity. In any historical event, there are people with varying levels of power and influence. Without understanding their positionality, it’s easy to simplify historical events. This is also key in reflecting on what history is discussed and what history is not.

3. Understanding context adds value to knowledge. Without contextual knowledge, current world issues can be misunderstood and simplified in dangerous ways.

4. Just as sources need to be interpreted as evidence in a historical argument, history itself is a narrative and an interpretation of the “building block” historical facts. Thus, as historians, we need to ask key questions: What evidence was used for this narrative, and what evidence was deemed unnecessary/incorrect, etc.? What is the narrative? Who created this narrative?

5. Things are not always what they seem to be. I am ready to examine, analyze, and evaluate carefully what history says.
  • I understand that historical arguments should have evidence to support them.
  • While some evidence is harder to find, this does not mean that it is not worth finding. It may just mean that it challenges a common narrative or explores a marginalized historical viewpoint.
  • I have considered several claims and perspectives about any given complex situation, issue, or problem.

6. Understanding often carries with it the responsibility to act ethically upon the knowledge I have.

  • Certainty is difficult to come by and whenever we’re absolutely certain of something, we should tread carefully. On the other hand, I choose not to remain frozen in perpetual doubt. That’s both unreasonable and impractical. As historians, we have a duty to grapple with the nuances and tough truths of history.
  • Many historical perspectives, judgments, and claims are defensible, but some are not. I recognize that most perspectives have at least some value and can teach me something, but that doesn’t mean the “right” answer is to automatically split the difference between these perspectives.
Invitation to Reflect:

What do you think of these statements about history? Does anything here resonate with you? Does anything here seem unclear/oversimplified? Do you have any statements you would add?

Originally published on the IB Exchange.
Jeremy Hoover has been teaching for 16 years and is currently a teacher at the International School of Uganda (ISU) in Kampala, Uganda. He teaches DP history, DP ToK, and middle years program Individuals & Societies, in the IB curriculum, and is involved as a workshop leader for the IB in history and ToK. Jeremy is a U.S. citizen and was born in Lubumbashi, D.R. Congo, where his parents lived from 1979 until 2016. He has lived in the D.R. Congo, Zambia, Kenya, Namibia, Egypt, Tanzania, and Uganda. He is grateful to get to walk the journey of life with an amazing wife, also a teacher at ISU, and two great kids, aged 6 and 9.

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