Reflections on the conference in Hammersmith

Robert Peal

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‘History is philosophy teaching by examples.’

Thucydides

Thucydides’ observation kept coming back to me during the inaugural West London Free School History Conference on Saturday, first whilst listening to Christine Counsell’s opening keynote speech. As part of her stirring cri de cœur for knowledge-based history teaching, Christine argued knowledge empowers young people to engage in the conversations of the privileged.

By way of demonstration, Christine invited delegates to read a couple of paragraphs from Simon Schama’s A History of Britain. The extract ends with Schama describing the impact of the Norman invasion as follows: ‘And it’s a truism that every spring, the grass came up green again. This year, however, there were bones under the buttercups.’

Though taken from a ‘coffee table’ book by a popular historian, Christine catalogued the considerable number of abstract historical concepts a reader would need to understand to make sense of this text: the structure of medieval society, the…

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