Thursday, 3 June 2010

If an infinite number of historians...

I've been trying to catch up with podcasts from the skeptical community, and something in the latest* Righteous Indignation niggled at me for slightly the wrong reasons. It was an item on the proposed revisions to social studies textbooks in Texas, and this was the end of host Trystan Swale's bit:

George Orwell, of 1984 fame, famously said that, “He who controls the present, controls the past. And he who controls the past, controls the future.” Of course there are rational people on the state education board fighting these changes, and any insidious changes will be slow and creeping, but this is one of the reasons why I think that the continual promotion of the ideas of the Enlightenment and scientific reasoning, and investigation into bullshitters and snake-oil salesmen needs to continue through vehicles such as this tremendous podcast. Rewriting history to agree with your rhetoric to me is morally bankrupt and intellectually bankrupt, and ironic coming from a religion that lays claim to moral superiority.

While I agree that the proposed changes to the curriculum are clearly an act of politically-motivated revisionism, and could have a very negative effect on the quality of education, I can sense an underlying assumption on the part of the podcasters here which needs to be examined. This is the assumption that there is a 'correct' version of history, which should be found in all textbooks. In other words, that there is a fixed benchmark against which the accuracy of the information in these books can be measured.

Sorry to go all postmodern on yo' asses, but there isn't. Or at least, it's not as fixed and clear as you might hope. Yes, if a book states that the American War of Independence was started in 1509 by a secret society of Welsh feminist trumpet players, it can be pretty conclusively disproven with reference to a vast body of archival evidence. On the other hand, when it comes to assessing which factions of revolutionaries deserve the most credit for victory, and the creation of the United States... there is no 'fact' to be uncovered, just a mass of different interpretations to be weighed up. If this sounds like I'm working up to the line “teach the controversy”, it's probably because I am. But I'd like it taught well.

When 'science' is taught, it is really the scientific method which is being learned. Ok, you get some facts like the structure of cells, or that some stuff floats, but wherever possible this is not taken out of a book, but demonstrated practically. Even better, the kids perform the experiment themselves and discuss their findings (before being told what it was they did wrong). 'Science' is not a static, monolithic thing you can memorise for an exam. It's a system, an engine, constantly adding new knowledge to the pool, or designating previously held 'truths' to be false.

History is the same. The idea of kids learning 'history' from a single textbook, or even a limited selection of textbooks, fills me with horror. History is not a 'story' to be learned by heart and recited. History does not, strictly speaking, exist to be learned. What can be learned is the discipline of history, the methodology of historians, and – as a basic starting point – some of the main things that the majority of historians would consider to be accurate: key events, dates, and actors; probable causes and consequences; aspects of everyday life at different times – whatever gives the lessons some substance, and interest. This should be done, at all levels, via proper engagement with sources (not just texts), examination of locations and artefacts where possible, and the development of critical thinking skills. Something like:

Right kids, based on this information about French and English weaponry and on the location of the armies, who do you think won the battle of Agincourt? Discuss it in groups for a bit; your homework is to find out the answer – and remember to double check with at least two different books! Next week, we'll discuss a little how historians define one side as 'the winner'.”

What should emerge from this is a sense that history isn't something which is remembered and preserved down the ages, but something which is constantly being pieced together, reshaped and reinterpreted by new information or different methods of analysis. The most useful thing which can emerge is the knowledge that everyone, however well-intentioned, 'rewrites' history, and that statements along the lines of “x was our past, therefore y should be our future” are always total hogswash.

*Second to last, i.e. episode 49. I'm a slow proof-reader.

1 comment:

  1. Vicky, thanks for listening and for your comments. It is good to see my opinions have aroused someone to think. Just to clarify a couple of things:

    My view is very much that if the best available evidence suggests x happened then x should be taught to our children. X is open to revision if new evidence of an appropriate quality necessitates it.

    A legally binding document requiring educators to teach the controversy is plain wrong in cases when the only controversy is in the minds of individuals who deny the best available evidence. Not only is it a waste of valuable time it also gives the green light to relativism and poor reasoning as on an equal footing with evidence based evaluation (Yes, I agree there are historical issues that are hazy. I recall my old history teacher loved debating who the real victor was in the battle of Jutland).

    You are entirely right that children need to be taught how to evaluate evidence. But at the same time this can be done in a sensitive manner; there is a difference between evaluating evidence to decide whether Thomas Jefferson did influence a revolution and removing him from the curriculum because some religious politician doesn't agree with the notion of a secular state!

    Thanks again for listening and for your thoughtful comments.

    All the best