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Can you learn Lessons from History? - School of History Inspection Report

by Anthony Webb, 1 April 2023

While researching local secondary schools for my kids I recently came across this intriguing (and damning) school inspection report, which I am sharing here in full just in case anyone is thinking of enrolling their own children.

Inspection Report - School of History

School name: School of History
School motto: Praeterita scio futurum scio
Inspection date: 1 April 2023
Lead inspector: Lucy Didez

This inspection was carried out under section 3 of the Inaugural History Act 1066, and section 17 of the History Terminus Act 1945.

Description of the school

School of History - not to be confused with history schools in general - is a reasonably popular and well known school of average size. It is attended by school children from the age of 12 until the age of 18, by a smaller number of university students from the ages 18 to 22, and at older ages by vocal but fragmented cohorts of “armchair” students. Teaching materials include books, television programs, podcasts, and Wikipedia.

The purpose of School of History is to teach Lessons from History. The pupils are expected to apply these Lessons in their everyday lives. The motto of the school is Praeterita scio futurum scio which, as every user of google translate will know, in English means He who knows the past knows the future.

Overall effectiveness of the school


Many of the lessons from the History School, on close inspection, turned out to be trite expressions devoid of any meaningful content. A sample of the lessons we heard being taught were:

  • History never repeats itself but it rhymes
  • Success breeds complacency
  • Never get involved in a land war in Asia
  • Success breeds success
  • Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it
  • All revolutions devour their own children

In each case the “lesson of history” was either so vague as to be useless for decision making purposes, or so obvious that it is hardly worth saying.

Achievement and standards


A high proportion of the most vocal Lesson teachers in History School did not meet the minimum qualification standards for opining on the past in public. Invariably these teachers were found to have a second occupation in politics.

Analysis of the Lessons that these “politician history teachers” took from history found that in precisely 100% of cases, the Lesson supported whatever the politician in question already wanted to do.

Debate in the school was regrettably stifled by these Lessons which served a secondary purpose of “shutting down the conversation”, thus denying pupils valuable opportunities for reflection and continuous learning.

Leadership and management


A popular class in School of History teaches personal development from the example of Great Men and Women from the past. An typical School of History lesson plan can be found at History Lesson platform Game Learn - a “learning platform for corporate training”. This particular class focuses on “8 leadership lessons you can learn from Julius Caesar

  1. Connection with his soldiers
  2. Communication skills
  3. Share information
  4. Max your potential out
  5. Accept your responsibility
  6. Celebrate achievements
  7. Don’t delegate the most unpleasant tasks
  8. Take a risk

While the best schools of history can inspire their students with stories of historic individuals, School of History Lessons Learned from Julius Caesar above is highly non-specific and could be applied to any figure from the past who has achieved a modicum of success, or indeed a figure from the present, or just from “plain old common sense”.

The quality of provision


We are concerned that where School of History teachers have made predictions based on their Lessons of History, the success rate of these predictions is disappointingly low. For example:

  1. Teacher Marx predicted the triumph of the bourgeoisie and then proletariat in the 19th century.
  2. Teacher Ehrlich1 predicted a Malthusian trap in 1968 and the imminent global starvation of millions.
  3. Teacher Fukuyama predicted the end of history and the triumph of the liberal order in 1992.

Events have subsequently shown that these predictions are at best still awaiting proof, and at worst spectacularly incorrect.

School of History is therefore yet to supply evidence that Lessons of History can be applied to the future with any degree of certainty.

Text from letter to pupils explaining the findings of the inspection

Dear pupils

Thank you for making us feel welcome during our recent inspection. We were amazed at the astonishing displays of work that you are so proud of, and enjoyed talking to you about the things you like best in school.

I know the recent award of Grade 4 INADEQUATE will come as a disappointment to some of you. We would encourage you to keep trying, but also to be more realistic about the capabilities of your History Teachers.

The conclusion from our inspection is that we have yet to see a real life “Lesson from History” that is not either just common sense, or mostly useless in decision making.

But it is important for me to tell you that while formulaic lessons from history have not worked at your school, you can still learn from history in many different and valuable ways. While this semantic distinction may seem abstruse, I can assure you - in my capacity as His Majesty’s Inspector of Schools - that it isn’t.

We have suggested something to make your school a bit better:

We strongly believe that the study of history can enrich your understanding and appreciation of the present. But we also believe that it will not provide you with a simple means to predict the future. We suggest amending the motto of your school to the almost equally inspirational quomodo ego dico latine or for English speakers: he who knows the past, knows his limits.

Warmest regards,
Lucy Didez, Lead Inspector

  1. The inspectors acknowledge that technically speaking Paul Ehrlich is a biologist. ↩︎


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