Britain's history war
David Osler is one of the very best left-wing bloggers in Blighty, so I was disappointed by his rather superficial response to the debate about the teaching of history which has been spreading across that country over the past few weeks.
The decision of the new Tory-led government to ask Niall Ferguson to revise history programmes in British secondary schools has alarmed both historians and teachers. Ferguson has invited controversy in both his British homeland and in America, where he holds a high-profile, low-maintenance academic post, by publishing a series of books which have sought to rehabilitate the British Empire, and European imperialism in general, and by writing opinion pieces for mass-circulation newspapers in support of Bush's invasion of Iraq and against the Obama administration's economic policies.
Ferguson's views on the teaching of history are as provocatively reactionary as his opinion of British colonialism. He favours imbuing secondary students with a grand 'connected narrative' of the past, rather than the more fashionable practice of focusing on a few exemplary events and showing students the various viewpoints and arguments which surround these events. If Ferguson has his way, then the old-fashioned recital of Kings and Queens and battles will return to British classrooms, in place of earnest discussions about the different ways history can be interpreted. Teachers and historians have warned that Ferguson's ideas would lead to a great leap backwards in British classrooms.
In the post he knocked off last week, David Osler deplores Ferguson's 'boosterism for the time when Britannia ruled the waves', but declares his sympathy for the revival of a 'grand narrative' approach to history teaching. Osler can still remember 'all 44 kings, queens, and Lord protectors in order of reign', and he wants the next generation of British kids to have the same skill.
Osler does not make the reasoning behind his position explicit, but in the comments thread under his post a fellow with the very English name of David Duff does the job for his host, when he asserts that:
‘Kids’...are not trained historians, indeed, they are not even trained human beings – that surely is the point of educating them! General history, that is, non-specialised history, is a narrative and the story should be told in those terms, embracing as many of the ‘facts’ as it is sensible to include in any particular syllabus. Complaining about the use of dates in teaching history is equivalent in dopey-daftness to complaining about the use of measurements in teaching science...For the purposes of teaching children, the narrative, in correct chronological order, is all.
David Duff's argument would surely be greeted as mere common sense by many members of the public, in New Zealand as well as in Britain. Fifteen year-old history students are not writing PhDs, but grasping the basics of their subject. Isn't it natural that they should have to acquire a few facts, before they venture into the dangerous realm of theory? Shouldn't history teachers focus on inculcating in them 'the narrative' of the past, 'in correct chronological order'?
The problem with Duff's argument is that it assumes there is a single, natural narrative which makes itself readily available when we look at the past. The reality is that history consists of an enormous amount of phenomena - events, ideas, objects, people - whose causal connections and relative significance are not easily discernable. Even worse, we must apprehend these various pieces of the past using concepts which come wrapped up in language and in cultural assumptions. There is no 'pure' past waiting for us in a simple, theory-free narrative.
In case that last paragraph sounded a little windy and abstract, let's consider an event, or set of events, which David Duff would no doubt want to include in any historical narrative taught to British kids. The Second World War stands at the centre of most histories of the twentieth century. Scholars agree that it claimed more lives than any other war, and that it redrew the map of the world. Aren't there a few things about the Second World War which are self-evident? Can't we provide youngsters with a few basic facts about this most famous of conflicts, without worrying about the tiresome business of interpretation and argument?
Yet when we consider even the most apparently obvious facts about World War Two, we quickly see that they are based upon interpretations of an array of historical phenomena. World War Two is normally taken to have broken out in September 1939, when Britain and France and their allies declared war on Germany after Hitler's invasion of Poland, but it is not as though the world was a peaceful place in August 1939. Eight years before Hitler invaded Poland, Japan attacked China's northern province of Manchuria; two years before his stukas began to level the towns of eastern Europe, Hitler unleashed his forces in Spain, in support of Franco's fascist uprising against a left-wing government; almost a year before they marched into Poland, German armies entered Austria and Sudetenland. If we choose to date the beginning of World War Two to September 1939, it is not because we have looked at the past and discovered some grand, self-disclosing narrative, but because we judge that September 1939 was the time when conflicts which had been expressed in various ways and places for years became sufficiently serious and interconnected to deserve a general label. To claim that even the most seemingly obvious historical events are tied up with the practice of interpretation, and need to be justified with argument, is not to become a relativist. We can insist upon the necessity of interpretation without claiming that all interpretations are equally legitimate. I think there are sound reasons for considering that World War Two began in Poland in September 1939, and not in Manchuria in 1931, but sound reasons are not the same as the self-evident truths which David Duff and his ilk claim to find in history.
In the thread under David Osler's post on history, a commenter named LabMike defends the current practice of British teachers from David Duff:
Facts are facts but to link facts together to form a narrative you would have to pick an interpretation and present it as if it’s the indelible truth. To grade students on how well they can memorise one narrative isn’t useful, it’s dishonest. History isn’t about accepting what authority figures say happened, whether those authority figures are sources or teachers or anyone. It’s about critical engagement.
Who won what battle is trivia. It’s the critical process that is important, not the actual events - they are just useful for actively applying the critical tool of history. It doesn’t build any skills for a student to memorise the dates of military victories. Inquiring sceptically into the causes and consequences of such events is history.
LabMike is quite correct to point out the naivety of Duff's position, but his apparent opposition to the presentation of any narrative of the past to students seems to me to be mistaken. Different historical events can only be understood properly if they are related to one another, either by narrative, comparison, or some other cohering device.
Even as they deplore the philistinism of Niall Ferguson, British historians and teachers are complaining about the way that impositions like national standards tests prevent them from introducing students to a broad enough sweep of the past. Increasingly, teachers are forced to focus on one or two important historical figures, like Henry the eighth or Hitler, at the expense of the rest of the past. How, though, is it possible to arrive at a reasonable interpretation of one period in history without a good working knowledge of other periods? Is it possible to understand Hitler, that extreme example of German imperialism, without knowing about the unification of Germany under Bismark in the nineteenth century, and the new nation's bloody adventures in Africa and the Pacific at the beginning of the twentieth century? Can we put Henry the eighth's confrontation with the Papacy in sixteenth century Britain into perspective without understanding what Luther was doing at the same time, across the ditch in continental Europe? The study of history demands an understanding of what Fernand Braudel called the long duree, as well as the interpretation of specific events.
But there is a perhaps more fundamental problem concerning the teaching of history which both sides of the debate at David Osler's blog fail to address. In Britain, not to mention New Zealand, there is evidence of a widespread lack of interest in and knowledge of 'official' history amongst younger sections of the population. A recent poll found that one in three Britons aged between eighteen and twenty-four don't know that Darwin was English, and that most don't know who Oliver Cromwell was, and therefore, presumably, don't know a great deal about the English revolution. It is easy for bloggers and newspaper columnists of a certain age to blame such ignorance on the perfidy of youth. Is it possible, though, that young people have good reason to be uninterested in the history lessons they receive at school? It is interesting to note that more and more Britons of all age groups are becoming enthusiastic about the study of the history of their families. Genealogical societies are flourishing, and the television programme Who Do You Think You Are?, which traces the ancestry of famous Britons back into the distant and often disreputable past, has become a massive hit. At its worst, the 'DIY history' offered by the genealogy industry can be an exercise in narcissism, as ill-informed researchers blunder about searching for distinguished antecedents - aristocrats, or victorious generals, or glamorous criminals - that they can mount on their living room wall in a stylish family tree. History becomes a status symbol, like the new car or the plasma screen telly. At its best, though, genealogical research can be a profound exercise in self-education, as distant ancestors become windows into strange and strangely instructive times and places. Would it be possible for history teachers to harness some of the enthusiasm for research which the genealogy industry has stirred?
Genealogy is nowadays often considered a middle class pursuit, but fifty years ago it was left-wing historians and teachers who promoted the practice. EP Thompson worked from the end of the forties until the early sixties as a tutor for the Workers Education Association in Yorkshire, and regularly asked his working class pupils to use family memories and yellowing documents to dig into their past. For many of Thompson's students, the idea that their experiences, and the experiences of the forbears, could be the stuff of history was both radical and exciting. Thompson explained to his students that the lives of their ancestors, and indeed their own lives, could be 'keyholes' through which larger pieces of the past could be observed and studied. As long as it was careful and theoretically informed, there was no contradiction between the sort of 'history from below' which focused on the lives of 'ordinary', marginalised people, and the attempt to interpret historical epochs and great events.
Thompson's classes were soon full of stories about life in the pit and the pub, and when he published his masterpiece The Making of the English Working Class in 1963 the historian thanked his students for their contribution to the book. Thompson's radical approach to pedagogy inspired a new generation of scholar-teachers, like Raphael Samuel, who founded the History Workshop movement to allow non-academics to research, write, and publish history.
A left-wing approach to the teaching of history has to regard students not as mere receptacles for prepackaged loads of information, but as active collaborators in research. Although a history curriculum should acknowledge both the inevitability of interpretation and argument and the necessity of acquiring a knowledge of the broad sweep of the past, at least some of the subject matter it considers and the primary materials it uses should be determined, not by civil servants in London or Wellington, but by students and their communities. It is odd that David Osler and the contributors to his comments box haven't grasped what EP Thompson knew fifty years ago.