Doling out marks for bad behaviour is not our job, protests history don

June 11, 2004

Any attempt to build moral and ethical teaching into a history degree is likely to run into significant problems, warns Christopher Haigh, who chairs Oxford University's faculty board of modern history.

Such an approach would run the risk of becoming anachronistic, because the morals and ethics of the past are so different from those of today, he said.

"That is not to say that I think historical characters or actions are morally neutral, or that historians cannot have their own view on them. But I think there is a difference between our responsibility as concerned laypeople and our responsibilities as professional historians. Doling out marks for good or bad behaviour does not seem to me to be a professional historian's approach," he said.

In the case of the behaviour of Henry VIII towards his six wives, for instance, the moral debates of the time bear little relation to how such acts would be viewed today.

Dr Haigh added: "If this report wants the public good to be taken into account in the teaching historians do, I guess most of us would say it is perceptions of the public good at the time we are considering that we want students to think about, rather than whether by modern standards Henry VIII ought to be condemned."

But Colin Jones, professor of history at Warwick University, disagreed.

Ethical questions and dimensions arise from a lot of historical material, and these can be useful to students outside as well as inside an academic context, he said.

"One of the reasons students are interested in it is because it can be helpful in developing their own thoughts and interests," he added.

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