Skip to Content

Shemilt, Denis. “The Devil's Locomotive.” History and Theory 22(4) (1983): 1-18.


That history has its characteristic logic, methods, and perspectives follows from its being what Paul Hirst calls a "form of knowledge." The British Schools Council Project "History 13-16" was founded on the assumption that history should be taught to adolescents as such a form. An analysis of "History 13-16" suggests that adolescents can address highly abstract questions when they are appropriately presented. There are four general, selective, simplified, and idealized models of adolescent construction of historical narrative. At Level I historical narrative is seen as lacking inner logic; logic enters the story as the simple linkage of events contiguous in time. At Level 11 historical narrative is seen to embody a Calvinistic logic in which everything is connected and continuous. At Level III adolescents are impressed by the complexity and density of the story. At Level IV adolescents develop an inkling of period as something more than a chronological connection. There is a firm understanding that events cannot be dissociated from their specific contexts. "History 13-16" students show a more sophisticated grasp of history than do children following conventional content-based courses, although only a minority construe at Level IV. If the levels of construal can be interpreted as developmental stages, as seems reasonable, it should be possible to "spiral" a history curriculum around basic structural concepts. The aim of teaching history should be the liberal one of enabling children to make sense of and to see the value of history, not the vocational one of training historians.


History and Theory