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← Texas's war on history

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 28 by Cartomancer

It seems to me that there is a fundamental unease at the heart of pre-university history teaching which opens it up to this kind of thing.

Academic history writing is, or at least tries to be, an attempt to get at the truth of what was really happening in a particular historical period. In this it is forensic and empirical, just like science is. When such is one's only aim then ideological concerns are irrelevant and, when the subject pertains directly to those concerns, actively damaging. One would not trust a committed neo-Nazi to perform a study of the rise of European fascism, or a devoted catholic apologist a study of the inquisition.

But history teaching in schools is subtly different. Yes, it usually involves much by way of source-criticism and evidential reasoning, but there has always been and is still a pervasive idea that history should teach us something beyond what actually happened.

This began with history writing itself. Herodotus put in his Histories much by way of political philosophy and social commentary, and Thucydides even explicitly began with a preface describing his method, in which he openly admitted to making up bits of reported political speeches so that his version described not just what he or his witnesses remembered but what should have been said in that situation. Later Greek and Roman historians and biographers justified their efforts as works of moral instruction and national pride. It is no accident that Arrian chose to chronicle the conquests of Alexander, or Livy the history of Rome from the beginning to his own day. Neither, as far as we know, was deliberately mendacious, but their projects were definitely nationalistic ones. Polybius's history of Graeco-Roman interactions in the second century BC was also a pro-Roman work, aimed at staking out a place for Greek statesmen and intellectuals like himself in an increasingly Roman-dominated mediterranean world. Plutarch, with his Parallel Lives, was less directly involved in national politics, but even that was explicitly a work of moral guidance. Tacitus's Annals subtly bemoaned the changed world of his own, Imperial, times, and made tentative commentary on how different the rhythms of ambitious upper-class families were compared with what those described in Livy got up to. Ammianus Marcellinus wrote his histories from a pro-Julian, anti-christian standpoint, Augustine tried to convince christian Romans that the sack of Rome wasn't an eschatologically significant event, Bede tried to give the English a sense of naitonal identity, Gerald of Wales did the same for the Welsh and Irish, and so on...

I don't know a lot about American history teaching, but from the English history teaching I do know it is plainly apparent that the topics chosen have much more to do with a modern sense of morals and ethics than a dispassionate attempt to inculcate the niceties of source-criticism. Almost everyone does the Nazis, usually in the context of twentieth-century dictatorships. State schools almost always do the Industrial Revolution as well, while private schools often do The Tudors (the class-based divisions here are particularly shocking, but nothing new - I suspect these are chosen with the intention of making the material seem more relevant, but all it succeeds in doing is reinforces class stereotypes). We get the Holocaust as a warning against bigotry, racism and totalitarian tyranny. We get the Chartists and Suffragettes as an exhortation to political reform and moral progress. We get the Great Depression as an example of what can happen when unrestrained capitalistic greed is given free reign. All relevant, yes. All morally sound lessons that really need to be taught. But is history class the right place to teach them, and does this attempt to put them there not distort the nature of the enterprise?

By contrast, Medieval history is covered poorly, if at all. Not because it isn't interesting, but because it isn't considered relevant to the modern world, and doesn't have some kind of overall perspective-setting moral and ethical message to give. This wasn't always the case. Victorian thinkers were keen to paint England's medieval history as the basis and bedrock of its Imperial success and constitutional stability - Domesday Book, Henry II's Common Law, Magna Carta, Parliament, etc. But these days, although there is much in the Middle Ages that really did lay the foundations of the modern world, the romanticised Victorian idyll and the enlightenment scorn of medieval thought still hold sway, and the Middle Ages is a kind of irrelevant dreary otherworld that doesn't matter. After all, what moral messages relevant to today can one derive from the Becket affair or the Peasants' Revolt or the Crusades? Ancient history is slightly less overlooked in Britain, but only slightly. That tends to get its own curriculum, but fortunately it is generally taught as the history of somewhere else, a long time ago, and hence does not suffer from being corralled and distorted into a moralising lens or a source of nationalistic pride. That's one of the reasons I teach it. Or would if anybody thought I was up to the task anymore.

I suspect that the focus on the enlightenment and its role in shaping the US constitution, the slave trade and the like, are chosen for exactly the same reasons. A mixture of "relevance" and moral guidance.

Of course, nobody ever considers teaching what are arguably much MORE relevant historical topics, like the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the legacy of 1980s Thatcherism or the fortunes of the EU after the war. But those stop smelling like history after a while, and there's only so much concentrated piss Mrs. T's grave can take before it washes away entirely and she has to find somewhere else to recover her vampiric powers in peace.

But the fact remains that history teaching is shot through with ideas of national consciousness, moral instruction and "relevance" as a matter of course. Hardly anybody studies much of other people's history - we get the French Revolution only inasmuch as it is considered a seminal event in pan-European history. The Albigensian Crusade or the French Wars of Religion hardly get a look in, and the Meijii Restoration or Mughal Empire might as well have happened on Mars. The only reason Classical history still has any foothold is because there is still a strong association between the Classics and European high culture. Is is any wonder that in such an environment the ideologues of the political right see history as an important battleground for the promotion their ideas?

I doubt we'll ever stop history being used as the football of the nationalists, ideologues and people with an agenda. Indeed, to some extent everyone who looks at it will bring baggage of that sort. But surely it behoves that we admit to the degree of not-strictly-empirical fervour with which history teaching in general is imbued, remain as aware of it as possible and take steps to minimise it?

Fri, 18 May 2012 23:37:25 UTC | #942244