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Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Vision? Nightmare more like...

Smug, moi?

As you might expect from this media ex-historian, this is absolute tripe which completely misses the point of an historical education.  I will comment more at length in future, but for now see what you think.  For me, the fundamental mistakes and inevitable self-contradictions stem from the myth of 'relevance', and the idea that history should be used to create some sort of national identity/consciousness.  Rather than British history, I'd say that in the current context European history ought to be the basic building block, building out to world history.


  1. Schama's perspective does seem a little, ah, insular.

    I'm not an historian. I've no wish to be deliberately provocative (and if I come across that way, I apologise). I am, however, intensely curious about your thoughts on an historical education: the point, pitfalls, and so on.

    Many thanks, by the way, for your Staffordshire Hoard post. Very useful.

  2. I think I substantially agree, but of course education is not funded Europe-wide but nationally, so the nation demands its pound of flesh I guess. I've never been sure how to get round this. It's like the argument that the education system should offer International Baccalaureates rather than A-Levels; arguable on any level inside the school structure and above, but to a policy-maker looking much more like a guaranteed way to accelerate a brain-drain to Europe. As ever, the larger strategy of making the country somewhere people with an education would wish to stay is judged less practical. That would take, you know, a vision, and a rather Bigger Society than that supposedly currently on offer.

    As to relevance, it seems to me that for the episodes Schama chooses (and still more the emphasis in the rest of the article) it's as much excitement as relevance that guides his choice. There I'm with him; it's the exciting bits that lead people into discovering the systems that enabled them to occur. But obviously I would put the Vikings in there! Vikings are the early medievalists' gateway drug!

  3. Jonathan, yes, excitement is the gateway drug. Swords! Ponies! Gold! People love that stuff. (I love that stuff...)

  4. What do I think the point of an historical education is? Here is my stock answer. Sorry it's not a more personalised effort! Remember that this is an answer to the question 'why does an historical education matter?' and not to the question 'why is history interesting?':

    I would say that there are essentially 2 important things that an historical education should provide (I don't think it necessarily does provide this and I'm not sure most historians live up to them all the time, but there you go):
    The first is a radically sceptical attitude. Everything you are told, and everything you believe must always be open to questioning and reassessment. All statements are to be sifted and questioned. Nothing is sacred. Nothing? Yes, nothing. Even the Holocaust (the limit case)? Sure: because it'll take you no time at all (unless you're mad, wicked or both) to see that, yes, of course it happened; because history is not primarily about just what happened (that's antiquarianism), it's about what things mean/why they happened.

    Second: Understanding the 'other' (I prefer 'the other person'). Being a historian means that you are always looking at other people's views, and so you have to be open to them. It doesn't mean you have to agree; it doesn't mean you have to see them all as 'equally valid'; it doesn't preclude you from making judgement, but it does mean you have to take them on their own terms. What that means, too, is that you soon see that what we are often told is the natural order of things is rarely anything such. Take race and sexuality. Not eternal biological realities. Race is an (ironically) Enlightenment myth; the Romans, for example, took no over-riding interest in skin-colour. Categories of hetero- and homosexuality are more recent still. Etc.
    It's about seeing the humanity in the other person. This is unfashionable in some circles but I don't think we do enough to stress the humanity in the Humanities.

    Both of these issues - questioning what you're told and understanding the other - make history dangerous, which is why governments of all hues (not just extremist ones) want to control what history is taught. As I always say, a history degree should be three years of thinking dangerously. Sadly my students appear to disagree. *sighs*

    Many - most - disciplines can make similar claims. I'm not arguing that history has a prior claim. I do think that in studying completed events historians do things in a particular and distinctive way.

    Excitement to bring people in, for sure. And what history should you study? The bit that excites/interests you, of course! But I don't think history is for enterteinment only. You don't need historians to do that; there are other people who do it as well or better: e.g. Tom Holland.


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