January 27, 2007

The purpose of History

Matthew Sinclair is worried that the government's British history syllabus will turn into an exercise in the promotion of liberal guilt, he hopes that a future Tory government will teach a history that makes Britons proud of being British. In doing this he unfolds two things that you might gain from history teaching- one is the idea of guilt for being white or middle class or male the other is the idea of pride in British heritage. To be honest though, I'm not sure if that is the underlying purpose of history teaching because I think that both focii miss the point of why we should be interested in history- both understandings are reflexive, they turn us back to contemporary society.

But one of the points about history is to understand that our society has been shaped by people who had very different attitudes to the world than we do. The world that we know was formed by people who fundamentally disagreed with anyone reading this blog post about the way that the world looked. There are heroes in history- Sophie Scholl would be one example of such a hero. But especially amongst the politicians they are few and far between. Much more interesting and worthy of intellectual effort by people is the instances when you can't find something that fits neatly into our categories. Why did say Oliver Cromwell, a man who let in the Jews and was amazingly tolerant of the various Protestant congregations in England, murder Catholics in Ireland? Why did his religious toleration stop there- could it be that Cromwell meant something different than us by the word toleration and wouldn't it be interesting to find out what he meant, rather than lauding him for his philosemitism or damning him for his hatred of the Irish. The interesting part of history is not finding the cartoon heroes and villains- the interesting part is working out how a complicated human being who like most of us was a hero one day, a villain another and complicated all the rest of his days, saw the world, functioned within his world. History becomes an academic exercise when it becomes foreign, difficult to understand and an exercise in empathy.

There is a further problem here and that comes right into the idea of identity- let me put it simply like this. Matthew would no doubt tell me that Cromwell's Irish massacres have nothing to do with a contemporary Briton's attitude to the Irish- he'd be right, I feel no desire to massacre the Irish. But on the other hand neither can Cromwell's tolerating the Jews have much to do with me- there is no sense in which Cromwell tolerated the Jews for my reasons for tolerating the Jews. What continuity is there in identity between me and Cromwell? We don't share the same ideas, we don't share the same picture of the world, we live in roughly a similar place that is all (unless that is you beleive in some mystical national unity of blood- an idea which is to quote Niels Bohr exceptionally uninteresting). There is no real unity between us- just as there is no real unity between me and King Alfred, Cnut, Elizabeth I or William Gladstone. All there is is the degree to which I can learn from them by appreciating their point of view, by entering into their picture of the world and studying their history but I could do that with anyone from Confucius to Cuitlahuac!

The issue to me about history teaching is that we live in a society of citizens- people who have to make judgements about what politicians say and why they say it- to do that they need to analyse and interpret statements. Fashioning an identity for kids might encourage them to behave in a way suitable to that identity- Matthew say would no doubt argue that his history teaching would encourage kids to stand up for democracy and human rights etc. But it might be just as important to teach children and university students that the world looks different to different people, to teach them how to work out how to interpret somebody else's vision of the world and to appreciate the human creation of politics in all its complexity. History might serve as a tool for the citizen to understand his own world, because the skills a historian needs- to evaluate and to understand the words of people long dead and reconstitute a view out of textual fragments- are the same skills required by anyone attempting to understand a politician's career from the fragments of television appearances and newspaper comments- even blog comments.

Yet again this functions as a tangent to Matthew's post- but I do think that history has another function in society beyond that of encouraging identity. The biggest criticism I suppose of this is that its more complicated- that it might not be possible to teach and that I'm an idealist- that possibly might be right. I stand convicted of impossible idealism- but I convict Matthew of a limited idea of the role of history teaching in the world.


james higham said...

'Cnut'. So glad you had the letters of this beach bum's name the right way round, given your penchant. And what was he doing on the beach in the first place, ordering back the tide? He'd be better off hacking and burning.

You say we're different. I can't see it and anyway, even if you're right, we're heading back to a new feudalism, thanks to Tony and his masters.

Cromwell is perhaps not the best example. The Irish can get on your wick quite easily - I can understand him [being half Irish]and he clearly hadn't had much practice ignoring them.

I've been looking at the Britons lately and this is where history lives because you can see people making decisions in reaction to crises, just as we would today. It brings it home.

I agree with you about the dates and facts issue - they're boring. Much better to look at the issues and the characters' interaction.

In the end, history's just ... interesting.

Gracchi said...

I do think we are different- I suppose its my interests as a historian of ideas coming through and the Cromwell thing is because that's the period I work on in my PhD but there is something very different. To take a simple example, anyone in Feudal England (and whether England was ever feudal is another question for another time that I don't want to get into) beleived that an eclipse was a sign from God that some historical event was about to happen- a friend of mine has just finished his PhD on this very issue and shows how that attitude changed through the eighteenth century. It just seems to me fascinating and worth teaching that the world looked profoundly different to them than it does to us.

Anonymous said...

I very much like your vision of what history study can be and what it means. But then I would say that because I'm always interested in understanding what motivates people. I also think that developing skills in considering how different contexts can produce different motivations can be very useful in understanding our "multicultural society" of today.

I had a great history teacher when I was 14. He took us carefully through the idea of sources and he taught me a lot about constructing valid arguments. He came to mind when reading Sinclair's post because Mr X. also taught us that the "Glorious Revolution" was only really glorious from certain, influential points of view.

As for "liberal guilt" I don't know enough about current history teaching in schools to comment directly.

I do know that the things I was taught in school about the British Empire looked pretty silly when I listened to the Indian side of my family (I am half-Indian) talk about family history and their direct experiences of British rule and indeed the books they pointed me to by Indian scholars about British rule.

I suppose here I fall into agreement with your implication that any notion of "history taught to influence today's citizens" is a political project that will always be full of both "liberal guilt" and "Tory guilt" in proportion to who writes up the syllabus.

As an aside, where on earth did we pick up this Americanism that substitutes the word "liberal" for everything to the left of Margaret Thatcher? Call this a British blogosphere?

Anyway, back to the history, my own experience is that people like Sinclair are largely pointing to the ideological bias of others to pretend that their own bias is reasonable. Niall Ferguson is probably the best example of this. Any serious examination of the economics of Empire suggests that it involves a lot of exploitation. All modern theories of a prosperous world involve trade rather than conquest. Thus, it's a bit sad to see people aching to build "pride" in Empire. I'd agree that my British side shouldn't feel guilt at centuries of oppression of my Indian side, but we should be careful how much pride we invest in war, conquest and exploitation too.

Gracchi said...

Anonymous I think what you've said is very sound- yes by the way I agree my feeling is that liberal has a meaning and it has more to do with William Gladstone or J.S. Mill than with Senator Kerry or Tony Blair. I borrowed Matthew's terms.

Your wider points though where you agree with me I agree with you.

I also am disquieted by taking great pride in empire- Shakespeare seems to me if we have to have a British hero much better than Clive and I would rather have kids worship Newton than either Pitt. (Newton's weirder beliefs about alchemy though sit well with the overall point I was trying to make). Admiration though seems to me to lose the historical focus- I can't think of many people who I admire and when I do I'm sure my judgement is wrong- a desire to make a history of heroes isn't a good thing.

I'm not a great fan of Ferguson either- neither what he said about empire nor what he has recently said seem to me to be very novel theses.

Vino S said...

I disagree strongly with the right-wing idea that history should be taught to give people 'national pride'. History (at least when taught at school for GCSE and earlier) should mainly be about giving pupils an idea of the historical sequence of events and what happened when. Yes, that sounds dull, but it is necessary if we are to combat lack of knowledge of history among the general population. If knowledge of the past does make people feel national pride, then that's all well and good, but the important thing is that pupils should learn what happened in 1066, 1381, 1485, 1649 etc. Then, when they know the facts, they can form their opinions. As CP Snow said, 'comment is free, facts are sacred'. Before history can give pupils either national pride or national guilt, they must first know the facts of things like the development of the British Empire, the Industrial Revolution etc.

Political Umpire said...

Great post, I'm trying to think of a more detailed response.

Matthew Sinclair said...

On Ferguson: Colossus is definitely novel and one of those rare books that is both persuasive and challenging. His earlier work on WW1 (a polemic for Britain staying out) was certainly new enough. His work on German and British war finance was good as well. However, he made his name looking at the Rothschilds I think.

Empire and the War of the Worlds are both attempting to pull together different strands and, as such, aren't heavy on new historical work. I don't think that makes them bad.

I've responded on my blog to the substance of your post.

james higham said...

Tiberius, you're going to sigh and look at the ceiling but the examples in the comments about Pitt, Rhodes, Ruskin etc. are interesting when they are viewed through the filter of 'Them'. Ruskin in particular was pure illuminist.

You say things have changed. I'd like to posit that they're going to change even more and people who now pooh-pooh the take in the last paragraph are eventually going to see just how culpable the ruling class have been through the ages.

Not yet though and until then, I remain a kook in the wilderness.

Gracchi said...

Matt as soon as I wrote the comment I regretted it- I don't know Ferguson's technical historical work so its not fair for me to attack it and I withdraw that. Empire and War of the Worlds weren't classics but you are right they were populist. I'm not an economic historian of the modern period- but an early modern historian of political thought and I don't know Ferguson's stuff well enough to comment.

As to your post- I've read it and found it interesting and will respond when I've worked out a response.

Umpire I can't wait for your thoughts- as ever I'm sure they will be interesting.

James- I observe your work on conspiracy with interest- I'm not sure I agree but its always worth people like you trying to work things out. My own sense is that the world is much more a product of mistakes than of conspiracies- I don't know if you've read Foucault's Pendulum but you might be interested in it because its about different levels of the explanations of truth- a kind of Occam's razor approach to the world. As to what I'm talking about though its the change of idea, the change of impression of the world that I think is fascinating about history and what I think kids should get out of it- it strikes me that its key that you learn how to become a citizen who interprets documents to find the mind behind them.

Kevin Doran said...

'...he hopes that a future Tory government will teach a history that makes Britons proud of being British'

That, to me, is the problem. The problem in so many ways.