Tuesday, July 06, 2010

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 Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education 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.


Anonymous de Gluik said...

Did you see the footy? Holland went through to the final. So did the Dutch. And the Netherlands. I've got three reasons to be happy!

12:18 pm  
Blogger Dave Brown said...

I didnt see the footy it put me to sleep.
I would say that Thompson's approach of popular history is too working class for todays pomo elites. What's left of popular history is in retreat, hence the gutless wonders of nice narratives unable to challenge that white Nial guy.
Theirs is the class war viewed through the bottom of a beer mug after one's had a few in the varsity pub.

4:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I never really understood in history what happened after the fall of Rome and up until the Renaissance. And even then I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on in Europe in the 1600’s, other than the conflict between the Catholic and Protestant churches.

Just a couple of years ago I read “The History of the Christian Church”, which is sort of an older textbook my friends who went to Christian School had.

It was a touch dry, but for the very first time I started to understand that period of history. It was like someone put back the missing puzzle pieces.

What secular people don’t realize is when you take christianity out of history, it’s very hard to figure out why anyone did anything.

I was able to do quite well in Medieval Art Hist., not so much so with Art of the 20th Century... too many paintings with red, blue, yellow squares with black outlines. The work of artists and artisans that graced churches and cathedrals was steeped in symbolism and for me was quite easy and interesting to study and understand.

8:28 pm  
Anonymous steve heeren said...

I was a bit disappointed by your analyis of the pros and cons of teaching history. I agree that some kind of interpretation is unavoidable and that therefore the "truer" it is to the known historical facts the better. Since the teaching of history (and nearly all other subjects) is part of the socialization of children into the reigning order, I would look at the content of a history class in terms of whether it helps encourage students to take a critical stance towards the "official story" and thus help them to become better citizens. Usually socialization processes are geared to fitting the student into the existing state of things. But a critical history would possibly make such a student into a dissident. We can't have that!

2:55 am  
Anonymous mike said...


By itself, I don't think the critical history approach is enough. Nietzsche wrote about in his essay "The Usages and Abuses of History" comparing monumental, antiquarian, and critical history styles. (These would correspond roughly to grand narrative, oral-local-family history, and critical history). Each has its, er... usages and abuses.

Critical history teaches the stance, it scrutinises interpretations, it debunks complacent views. But (sorry for the long quote):

"The process is always dangerous... and the men or the times that serve life in this way, by judging and annihilating the past, are always dangerous to themselves and others. For as we are merely the resultant of previous generations, we are also the result of their errors, passions, and crimes: it is impossible to shake off this chain. Though we condemn the errors and think we have escaped them, we cannot escape the fact that we spring from them. At best, it comes to a conflict between our innate, inherited nature and our knowledge, between a stern, new discipline and an ancient tradition; and we plant a new way of life, a new instinct, a second nature, that withers the first... [but] it is difficult to find a limit to the denial of the past, and the second natures are generally weaker than the first."

8:33 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is left-wing propaganda any better than right-wing propganda? A plurality of narratives chould be taught. It sounds like Steve just wants to teach a left version of past events. But that will alienate students because it will become the new orthodoxy. They will rebel against it.

8:59 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

when the sport becomes art…that’s Spain

9:57 am  
Blogger maps said...

Whilst I agree that students should, from as young an age as possible, be taught to think criticially - I think that the French have the right idea when they teach philosophy in both primary and secondary schools - I don't think an approach to history which relies simply on questioning
the currently dominant interpretation of past events holds much promise.

I think Steve assumes there is some sort of monolithic view of the world, and of the past, which is inculcated in students at school - that, at least, is how I interpret his talk of kids being 'socialised'. The reality, in countries like New Zealand and Britain at any rate, is that historical orthodoxy is often in flux, and often consists of contradictory interpretations of different events.

Over the past few decades, we have seen, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, major swings in the way different periods of history have been interpreted. The English Civil War period was something of an historical backwater before World War Two - even Marxist historians tended to focus on the reign of Henry the eighth rather than the war as the crucial moment in English history. But the work of Christopher Hill moved the seventeenth century to the centre of English history, for two decades at least. More recently there has been a shift towards an emphasis on the eighteenth century, which featured much less outward social conflict, as the crucial period in English - and, indeed, British - history. (In some of his later work EP Thompson tried to undermine this conservative use of the eighteenth century 'from within', by uncovering cases of social conflict within the period).

In New Zealand we have seen, in recent decades, the elevation of the nineteenth century wars between Maori and Pakeha to a place of new importance in national history, and a new emphasis on the difference between Maori and Pakeha experience. This is, I think, a very positive trend, and yet some of the hisorians that have led it - Michael King, for instance - have worked quite hard to downplay the importance of periods of intense class conflict in New Zealand history, particularly the period between 1911 and 1914, when, according to historians like Len Richardson and Jamie Belich, labour unrest brought this country to the brink of revolution.

We should, I think, contest the downgrading of the importance of class to New Zealand history at the same time that we welcome and build upon the insights into Maori experience which were brought into the historical mainstream in the
'70s and '80s by books like King's biography of Te Puea. An attitude of simple, implacable opposition to dominant trends in historiography is not very useful.

11:30 am  
Blogger Edward said...

I have thoughts on this topic which will require more teasing out, but for now I think Maps' comment that philosophy being taught in schools at an early age is a very good one. I didn't know that this was done in France. If critical thinking skills and epistemology were taught at an early age surely this would have a flow-on effect into other disciplines including history. Time is a funny thing, and while it's true that history is narrative, in reality it is more like a palimpsest or a great swath of narratives which are incomplete and crosscut and interact at the same time. If you don't acknowledge this from the start you may as well give up because you'll only be learning through a very narrow lens indeed.

12:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Philosophy is a bourgeois 'discipline'. Philosophers pass their days arguing about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. They are modern monks. Stick to the real. Why do history etc need philosophy?

12:54 pm  
Blogger ryan bodman said...

Kia ora Maps,

I found you blog particularly insightful and interesting today. Thanks.

Just in regards to your comment that 'I don't think an approach to history which relies simply on questioning
the currently dominant interpretation of past events holds much promise', I agree that history today shouldn't simply be a critique of the dominant interpretation.

However, to me, perhaps the most important aspect of the study of the past is understanding how and why a particular interpretation of the past became dominant. For example, why is there more in the seventh form history ciriculum on Vogel then Te Whaiao, or Hobson then Te Raupraha, or men then women, or the wealthy than the poor. This is not to say that those who figure prominently in traditional histories should be ignored, but rather the reason for their prominence should be considered.

In this way, young people will be made aware of the power of history to form national idenity and understanding from a very young age, and can approach what is offered to them with an understanding that it almost certainly comes loaded with various political implications.

Anyway, just some thoughts.
Thanks again,

2:57 pm  
Anonymous Doug said...

In the 1990s, Canada underwent a mild "history war" in which conservative historian Michael Bliss and Jack Granatstein lamented the collapse of a national historical narrative. Granatstein in particular, after penning the polemic "Who Killed Canadian History?" was roundly dismissed by the academy but the book was a bestseller and Granastein remains one of the two or three historians who regularly appear on television, newspaper or radio.

Needless to say, the public has no clue that the academy is largely dismissive of the right-wing approach to history and the nationalist narrative it promotes. Not coincidentally, the academy, and the liberal left, has largely abandoned the public as an audience.

Still, I have to agree that a narrative is needed to counter those presented by the Fergusons and Granastein's of the world. The pomo ethic of dispensing with narrative is really part of a conflation with the dispensation of synthesis.

While all historians generally accept the impossibility of a synthesis, historians have sadly retreated from attempting to construct narratives and syntheses that nevertheless acknowledge limitations. Historians who oppose the right, and left historians in particular, can't simply present history as contested events, but actually need to reconstruct history and provide a comprehensive - but complex - narrative of the past.

3:41 pm  
Blogger Edward said...

Anon, my answer would be that everything is underpinned by philosophy, and it is important to examine what we know (or think we know) about how the world works in order to understand. The anarchist politics which I expect you are aware of are underpinned by philosophy. Also, philosophy gives us a tool set of critical thinking skills, without which we'd all be sounding like fundamentalists or republicans ;)

I can understand the 'bourgeois' comment in the same way I could understand it aimed at biologists or English professors, but I think it is a superficial criticism if you really think about it. Some things exist outside of class struggles anon, and some things are desperately needed even if they seem 'bourgeois' to some. If you want to change society, focus on the system and upon changing attitudes, rather than taking pot shots at philosophers on the internet.

That's what I think anyway, though feel free to disagree.

4:50 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did Marx abolish philosophy and replace it with economics?

9:34 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Thanks for your kind words Ryan. I quite agree with your point about the bias against those parts of our history which touch upon Maori experience. I grew up in a village that was a major staging post for the armies that moved south from Auckland and invaded the Waikato, and a military milepost which was raised in 1863 to mark the progress of that army stood outside my school, and yet the history of my locality rarely entered into my schooling.
How exicting it would have been to have learned about that history! What opportunities there would have been for first-hand research of that subject, when battlesites and archives were close at hand!

My seventh form teacher had the option of the teaching her class about the New Zealand Wars, but instead chose to focus upon the Elizabethan era - and, according to figures recently released by Greens MP Catherine Delahunty, that sort of choice is still being made far too often in Kiwi classrooms:

1:30 am  
Blogger maps said...

Reproduced below is a comment I made at the Marxmail e list about this subject, which possibly addresses Doug's argument that leftists should prioritise the construction of ambitious historical narratives.
I'm not against narrative - just somewhat suspicious of it! When I wrote my PhD I tried to make a narrative with lots of asides and detours and qualifications - in some ways that's the sort of historical text I most enjoy.

[comment to Marxmail]

There has been a bit of a debate under my blog post, with some lefties arguing that students should be encouraged first and foremost to challenge dominant interpretations of the past and others suggesting that it is more important to create a sophisticated but sweeping progressive narrative of history. I think there are dangers in taking either approach too far.

It's interesting that a vigorous debate between a narrative-focused approach to history and a more intellectual, discontinuous method occurred in the Soviet Union, especially in the late '20s and early '30s, when the shadow of Stalin was lengthening (Ian Barber's book Soviet Historians in Crisis describes this debate).

Stalin was keen on dumbed-down narratives full of stirring heroes and defeated villains - the historiographical version of socialist realist art, I suppose - and in my opinion his influence can be felt in some of the pioneering popular histories written by Western Marxists, like AL Morton's A People's History of England, a work which in turn influenced texts like Zinn's People's History of the United States. While this sort of stuff is well-intentioned, I think it has as little to do with the real pattern of the past as the works of right-wing populists (I'll probably get in trouble for saying that!).

Like you, I'm a fan of Britain's Communist Party Historians Group generation, and I think that they achieved so much because they broke with the simplistic narrative approach and embraced other influences outside what was then mainstream Marxism. Thompson, for instance, was hugely influenced by the English tradition of literary criticism as social commentary which gave the world the likes of Coleridge, Leavis, and Raymond Williams. (Thompson, with his close readings of primary texts, often worked like a literary scholar.) John Saville embraced oral history and economic history. Eric Hobsbawm was keen on the Annales school. It's quite notable that historians like Thompson often spurn narrative - The Making of the English Working Class and Customs in Common, which are probably Thompson's two most important histories, are both collections of thematically connected studies. The sheer weight of Thompson's research and the subtlety of his arguments probably makes the sort of smooth narrative favoured by populist historians like Morton and Zinn impossible.

1:38 am  
Blogger ryan bodman said...

'While this sort of stuff is well-intentioned, I think it has as little to do with the real pattern of the past as the works of right-wing populists (I'll probably get in trouble for saying that!).'

In my opinion, no history has anything to do with 'the real pattern of the past'; the remnants of the past that we have to work with, the form our histories take and the particular viewpoint of the author make sure of this.

I value Zinn's work immensely and a major reason for this is that he places his bias on the table from the beginning. At the start of People's History, he has 2 or 3 pages discussing his view point, and finishes it with 'That being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader may as well know that before going on.' I think your connection between Stalinist narrative or traditional histories ignore the fact that these works presented themselves as THE truth, and Zinn presents his work as HIS truth.

A similar connection can be made to the writing of Iwi history in NZ. Aroha Harris often talks of the admission of bias at the beginning of Maori history with the presentation of whakapapa. This tells a Maori audience a great deal about how the author will approach the subject matter.


8:59 am  
Blogger maps said...

Hi Ryan,

to me, Zinn seems dangerously subjective and pragmatic in his approach to the past. Of course we are all biased - without the preconceptions which come from our worldview and motivations, we would be unable to study history - but that does not mean we cannot open a dialogue with the evidence.

Where someone like Thompson emphasises the importance of a dialectic between preconceptions and evidence, Zinn seems quite openly to proclaim that he looks at history and selects parts of it which are consistent with his worldview and intentions. And he is quite contemptuous of the intricate and intense debates about the proper practice of history which have been a part of the philosophy of history and also of the discourse of many historians over recent decades - he tends to present such debates as arid academic affairs, and say that the only real test of the truth of a work of history is the effect it has on the world (I'll track down the passages I'm thinking of here and post them when I get the time).

In my opinion, the irony of Zinn's approach to the past is that it impedes the project of the left. Because Zinn tends to look through American history and cherrypick inspiringly radical people and events, he ignores the awkward fact that vast numbers of Americans have always been less than radical in their ideas and behaviour. The study of working class conservatism is actually more politically necessary in America - or in New Zealand, where it has been carried out in a masterly fashion by Miles Fairburn - than the study of isolated passages of radical history.

I haven't read Aroha Harris but I think the way Judith Binney has tried to deal with the epistemological challenges of working with oral tradition is quite valuable:

9:54 am  
Blogger ryan bodman said...

'Because Zinn tends to look through American history and cherrypick inspiringly radical people and events, he ignores the awkward fact that vast numbers of Americans have always been less than radical in their ideas and behaviour.'

Again, I disagree. I feel like perhaps we won't come to any agreement on this issue, and I don't want to waste too much of your time. But, again within the first 10 pages of People's History, he addresses your critique. His motivations for writing history is not to invent victories for people's movements, but in the hope that our future can be informed and inspired not in the past's solid centuries of warfare, but in the FUGITIVE MOMENTS of compassion.' He accepts that what he is doing is cherry picking those events that inspire him, and in turn, he hopes to inspire others towards a more compassionate and just mode of social relations.

The value I place in Zinn does not mean that I do not also value the work of historians such as Fairburn who ask other vitally important questions about the past, and why people have acted the way they have. I read an interesting account of post-war Britian which tracked the change of the popular understaning of the words communist/socialist which over time came to be synonomous, to many, with anti-Britian ideas which stood in opposition to the British way of life. He described this as being central to to dismissal of radical ideas by many working class folk despite the prominence of these ideas earlier in the century. Such studies are extremely illuminating, but, in my opinion atleast, take absolutely nothing away from what Zinn was aiming to achieve.

I would love to check out the article you mentioned about Zinn's dismissal of historical philosophy. Despite how it may sound, I do have problems with some of Zinn's historical approach, including the common leftist tendency to make broad assumptions and statements without any attempt to substantiate their claims.

Anyway, i've said enough.
Thanks, Ryan

10:34 am  
Blogger maps said...

You're not wasting my time at all Ryan! Thanks for the interesting comment. I'll look up that reference and the stuff I read by Zinn on the philosophy of history as soon as I have the time.

11:08 am  
Anonymous MD said...

Hi Maps
very interesting discussion. Regarding genealogy, I've been looking into my family history recently, (and am at risk of becoming slightly obsessed) and I'm wondering if you could point out any good reads about genealogy from a working class or left perspective. I haven't discovered anyone glamorous in my family past (unless horse theft and fraud counts!) but I have ended up discovering all sorts about the very working class , very catholic and very alcoholic polish settlers in the late 1800s in NZ,

1:18 pm  
Blogger ryan bodman said...

Sorry to interject here, and I am sure Maps can point you in the direction of others, but an amazing mostly working class focused genealogy is Maurice Shadbolt's 'One of Bens' - it is a rags to riches and back again story, and is very entertaining.

1:56 pm  
Anonymous listen up fools said...

No one ever says,"Hmm, we've got a problem here. We better call in a philosopher!"

This because philosphy is bourgeois.Philosophy today is redundant, all the useful asres have branched off and formed disciplines such as psychology, social science, physics, etc, leaving a philosophers unqualfied to do little more than teach philosophy.

All philosophers should eb rounded up and made to pull a big wheel around like the one in Conan the Babarian.

7:19 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hate Zinn, hate socialism.

Your choice.

11:10 pm  
Blogger ygkpd said...

maps: I agree that there is plenty of perils with constructing a "sophisticated but sweeping progressive narrative history." I'd suggest we start with a sophisticated progressive narrative but one that is not yet sweeping.

I think this is something that is already happening. There are already tentative steps, conscious or not, towards reconstructing narratives but in temporally and geographically limited ways. There has been a lot of city-centric histories covering particular periods of little more than a decade. A great recent example is Sean Mills' "The Empire Within" about Montreal in the 1960s and how anticolonial and socialist ideas shaped the multi-faceted oppositional movements in Montreal. But as these mini-narratives begin to complicate and transform assumptions about broader periods in broader geographic spaces, then historians need to start thinking about bringing these ideas together into paradigm-shifting narrative/syntheses.

I suppose I should add that my emphasis on narrative/synthesis is that while academics will (and always should) question such approaches and understand them as always tentative and provisional, narrative and synthesis is precisely what left historians need to do of if the left is to begin making any substantial inroads in the public sphere - precisely the plane on which Ferguson and his various national equivalents have established themselves and have continued to replicate publicly-consumed history as the history of great leaders and glorious wars.

I'll stop before I keep ranting some more :)

4:19 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maps...think that they are left wing, but he plays in favor of the system

3:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check out this post on the revolutionary history of Detroit, America's Third World:

3:38 pm  

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