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Ethical judgments in school history

Posted by Lindsay Gibson
12 February 2012 - 6:54pm
Over my last three blog posts I have discussed what ethical judgments are, the arguments used by historians, philosophers and historiographers to argue that ethical judgments have no place in the discipline of history, and the key arguments why ethical judgments are an important part of doing history. In this blog I would like to discuss how ethical judgments are an important, but unrecognized part of history education in our schools. 
Unlike the recurring debates amongst historians about the acceptability of ethical judgments within the discipline, ethical judgments have been accepted as one of the most important purposes for teaching history since the inclusion of history in compulsory public schooling over a century ago. In America at the beginning of the century, training in ethics and morals was listed as one of the primary reasons for teaching history, while in Britain history was identified as "the nursery of patriotism and public virtue" (Diorio, 1985, p. 71). History was believed to be practical ethics and philosophy in action, an observatory in which the consequences of various human actions can be viewed and the appropriate lessons drawn (Diorio, 1985, p. 74), or in the frequently repeated words of Dionysius, "history is philosophy teaching by examples" (Nadel, 1964, p. 455). History maintained an important position in the curriculum because it was perceived to be one of the subjects that strengthened the moral training of young people, and because of its contribution to the transmission of a sense of national heritage and citizenship (Ward, 1975).
Ethical judgments were often presented to students in the form of an authoritative narrative established by experts, passed on by teachers and passively accepted by students (Low-Beer, 1967). There was little room for interpretation and students were expected to learn the story and learn from the story. Even Herbert Butterfield, the staunch opponent of ethical judgments argued that the best way to teach the very young was "the mere telling of stories....with possibly a side-glance at some moral that may be drawn from the narrative” (Vann, 2004, p. 5).
Many history educators in the 1970s and 1980s influenced by changes in historiography and education began to regard the patriotic and moralistic uses of history as an unjustifiable mode of indoctrination (Partington, 1979). History educators in Great Britain, the United States, Canada and other nations argued that students’ needed to be taught to think historically. Ann Low-Beer (1967) was the first history educator to suggest a historical thinking approach to addressing ethical judgments. According to Low-Beer, ethical judgments are implied in our everyday language and are part of historians’ viewpoints, interpretations, and descriptions of causes and explanations, and as a result they should be included in any attempt to teach students to think historically. Low-Beer aimed to teach students how to recognize ethical judgments, and how to make responsible ethical judgments on their own.
Several history education researchers over the next twenty years focused on understanding the development of students’ historical thinking, however, little attention was paid to ethical judgments. Barton & Levstik (2004) contend that moral response “...forms a major component of history education in schools, although its role is generally unacknowledged and unanalyzed” (p. 104). Of the different conceptions and theories of historical thinking developed during this time period very few have included an explicit focus on ethical judgments except for the 1996 U.S National Standards for History in the Schools (, Barton and Levstik (2004), and Seixas (1996; 2006). The 1996 National Standards for History in the Schools developed five history standards for Historical Thinking, one of which, “Standard 5: Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making” mentions the ethical dimension in the explicit wording of the standard itself. For Barton and Levstik (2004) ethical judgments are a central part of participatory democracy because the purpose of making ethical judgments is to appraise the actions of others, to affect the behaviour of those whom we judge (if they are still alive), or to change the behaviour of others by either encouraging or dissuading them from taking a particular course of action. Seixas’ Historical Thinking Project ( focuses on six key historical thinking concepts, one of which, the “Ethical Dimension”, focuses on understanding the responsibilities historical crimes and sacrifices impose upon us today, and the ways in which we make ethical judgments about events in the past.
Research by Seixas and Ercikan (2010) suggests that teachers do not explicitly focus on ethical judgments very often when they teach—teachers identified ethical judgments as the least likely of six second-order historical thinking concepts they directly focused on at least once a month in the classroom. This does not necessarily mean that teachers are not making ethical judgments or inviting students to make ethical judgments, only that they are not explicitly focusing on ethical judgments when they teach. If ethical judgments are unavoidable in any written history, then it is also highly likely that teachers and students frequently make ethical judgments when they describe and explain history to each other.
Ethical judgments are also commonly included in textbooks, and teachers’ and students’ regular judgments and evaluations. Ethical judgments are an inescapable part of all historical writing, including textbooks, as everyday language is rife with ethical and moral connotations and implications. One cannot open any history textbook without coming across several explicit and implicit ethical judgments. For example: in discussing the War Measures Act passed during World War I the Counterpoints textbook says, “Recent immigrants from Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were treated particularly harshly under this act”(Cranny & Moles, 2001, p. 27). When discussing the immigration of British Home Children the Creating Canada textbook states that “Although some British home children were treated well by the families who took them in, others were exploited” (Colyer, Cecillon, Draper, & Hoogeveen, 2010, p. 189).
If teachers and students frequently make ethical judgments when teaching and learning history, then it is important that both groups understand how to identify implicit and explicit ethical judgments, and also to make quality ethical judgments when they are judging history. It is this topic that will be the focus of my next blog post, my final post that focuses on the issue of ethical judgments.