Thursday, 28 May 2009

Cameron wants a return to narrative history in schools. I don't.

David Cameron has pointed out that the BNP "are not pleasant people". Well done him. On the other hand, the same Q&A session brought up this:

A mother raised the issue of her two children not knowing what it was to be British because they did not learn history at school.

Mr Cameron said: “It is one of the great betrayals of school children that we have swept away with narrative history.

“We should be proud of what we have achieved as a country. Teaching people about the British Empire does not mean covering up the bad things that happened. It means having an honest explanation about the good and the bad.”
Now, I'm seriously contemplating a whole academic career of looking at narrative history and the problems it throws up, especially when it's the main way that history is spoon-fed to children, and especially when one of the aims is to "be proud of what we have achieved as a country". Naturally it would be unthinkable to cover the history of the British Empire without bringing up "the bad things that happened", but simply covering the negative sides isn't necessarily enough.

I'm currently reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, which has some brilliant observations about the way in which atrocities can be trivialised or brushed over, even when the events are described accurately (very long quote coming up, but it didn't seem fair to cut it down):

Samuel Eliot Morison, the Harvard historian, was the most distinguished writer on Columbus, the author of a multi-volume biography, and was himself a sailor who retraced Columbus’s route across the Atlantic. In his popular book Christopher Columbus, Mariner, written in 1954, he tells about the enslavement and the killing: “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.”
That is one page, buried halfway into the telling of a grand romance. [...]
One can lie outright about the past. Or one can omit facts which might lead to unacceptable conclusions. Morison does neither. He refuses to lie about Columbus. He does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide.
But he does something else - he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him. Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts, however, and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important - it should weigh very little in out final judgements; it should affect very little what we do in the world.
It is not that the historian can avoid emphasis of some facts and not of others, This is as natural to him as to the mapmaker, who, in order to produce a usable drawing for practical purposes, must first flatten and distort the shape of the earth, then choose out of the bewildering mass of geographical information those things needed for the purpose of this or that particular map.
My argument cannot be against selection, simplification, emphasis, which are inevitable for both cartographers and historians. But the mapmaker’s distortion is a technical necessity for a common purpose shared by all people who need maps. The historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economical or political or racial or national or sexual.
Furthermore, this ideological interest is not openly expressed in the way a mapmaker’s technical interest is obvious (“This is a Mercator projection for long-range navigation - for short-range, you’d better use a different projection”). No, it is presented as if all readers of history had a common interest which historians serve to the best of their ability. This is not an intentional deception; the historian has been trained in a society in which education and knowledge are put forward as technical problems of excellence and not as tools for contending social classes, races, nations.
I don't have enough information on current history teaching in schools, and I know that many people are scathing of the 'transferable skills' approach which has taken time away from providing children with an overview of British history. On the other hand, I don't want to see a return to the situation 100 years ago, when history was taught to the proles primarily to foster unquestioning patriotism and respect for the all-important drive for 'progress'. I'd much rather children learned that one narrative, from a single narrator, is never enough to understand past events, that every historian has a point of view and limits to their knowledge and understanding, and that critical thinking skills are the only real protection against the bullshit they'll have to deal with when they enter adulthood.

It doesn't surprise me all that much that the leader of the Conservative Party might prefer the Victorian approach.

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