The Daily Mail defended Littlejohn's column. A spokesman said on Friday: "It is regrettable that this tragic death should now be the subject of an orchestrated twitterstorm, fanned by individuals – including former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell – with agendas to pursue."I think I'm just going to let that stand. There's really nothing anyone could possibly add by way of comment.
Monday, 25 March 2013
This, from Guardian coverage here:
[This is the next rough draft instalment of my work in progress, Why History Doesn't Matter, which (currently) follows on from the second part of 'The Siege' (here). Essentially the argument in this section (which is hardly novel or original, I admit) is that history - as opposed to The Past - doesn't exist until we shape 'the past' into 'history' in the present and that there are some key issues involved in history-writing that differentiate it from chronicling or description of the past. This will lead (in subsequent sections) to a dissection of common justifications for history and an exploration of the ethical and political demands that inhere in history-writing. The issue of remembrance and mourning, or a confrontation with what might seem to be the implication of the argument in this section, which is a trivialisation of events like The Holocaust, will be dealt with later.
I've no idea why the font changes part-way through and then changes back again. It's something to do with importing the file from my computer, but there you go.]
I've no idea why the font changes part-way through and then changes back again. It's something to do with importing the file from my computer, but there you go.]
Thurbrand and Uhtred
To illustrate the difference between serious conceptions of history and popular presentations of the past, I offer a deliberately provocative-sounding epigram: history never happened. Actually, although it sounds provocative, closer inspection will reveal that it is pretty uncontroversial, even banal. To illustrate this, I will employ a tale written in twelfth-century northern England. It goes like this: Once upon a time there was a powerful and energetic earl called Uhtred who saved Durham from the Scots. Uhtred was married three times. His second marriage was to the daughter of one Styr Ulfsson and was contracted on condition that Uhtred would kill Styr’s enemy, Thurbrand. Alas, when Uhtred came to swear allegiance to King Cnut, his new ruler (and old enemy), in around 1018-20, Thurbrand and the king’s soldiers ambushed him and forty other chief men and killed them all. Uhtred’s brother Eadwulf succeeded him in the earldom but when he died Ealdred, Uhtred’s son by his first wife, became earl and killed Thurbrand. Thurbrand’s son, Carl, then campaigned against Ealdred until the two were prevailed upon to become sworn brothers and go on pilgrimage together to Rome. Unfortunately, the ship upon which they were to sail was delayed by bad weather so whilst they waited, Carl entertained Ealdred at his home in Holderness in the East Riding of Yorkshire. One day, whilst showing Ealdred around his estate Carl killed Ealdred in (to quote the source)
a wood called Risewood and still today the place of his murder is marked by a small stone cross. Some time later, the grandson of Earl Ealdred, Earl Waltheof, who was the son of his daughter, sent a large band of young men and avenged the killing of his grandfather with the utmost slaughter. For when the sons of Carl were feasting together at their elder brother’s house at Settrington, not far from York, the men who had been sent caught them unawares and savagely killed them together, except for Cnut whose life they spared because of his innate goodness. Sumerled, who was not there, survives to this day. Having massacred the sons and grandsons of Carl, they returned home bringing with them much booty of various kinds.
This is a fascinating story but what makes it relevant to my argument is the way that historians have read this story as the tale of a ‘feud’: a vendetta with each murder justified by the last and justifying the next. In other words, they have seen the characters in this tale as impelled to act by the past events that weighed upon their shoulders. In this way of seeing, individuals were bound to act in particular ways because of the demand of the ‘blood-feud’. They had no choice; such was the burden of expectations about honour and duty weighing upon them. They are prisoners of their history. For these reasons, what we can call the Northumbrian ‘feud’ can stand as a useful illustration of common conceptions of the individual’s relationship to history. A person is constructed by the events of the past; her identity is forged and defined by those events; membership of a group is determined by shared memories; actions are largely explained as brought about by specific historical inheritance, or heritage. But let us look at this story more closely.
It illustrates beautifully the fact that history is only constructed after the event. It is written as a story; English is perhaps the only western European language where the word for ‘history’ is not commonly also used as the word for ‘a story’. The account also shows that how we choose to tell that story is crucial. This point is often associated with the ‘post-modern’ turn in historiography but it has actually been made since the very earliest days of what we might think of as modern history-writing. People like the author of this story (known to scholars as ‘the Durham Anonymous’) select episodes from the past and link them together to make a single strand of narrative. In this case it was the story of a feud. But did it really happen like that or were the events simply written up in that way?
As related by the anonymous author, the episodes in the story of the Northumbrian ‘feud’ sound unproblematic, linked by a straightforward chain of cause and effect unfolding through time. They fit the model of early medieval man, caught within a web of relationships and demands, not of his own making but inherited from the past. In fact, though, long gaps separated the acts of violence. It took ten years for any violence to erupt as a result of Styr’s alleged injunction to Uhtred to kill Thurbrand. Styr’s daughter had died and Uhtred had remarried in the interim, surely freeing him from Styr’s demand. Furthermore, it was actually Thurbrand who did the only recorded attacking. A further seven years or more must have elapsed before Ealdred exacted his revenge on Thurbrand. The episode after that is interesting. Thurbrand’s son Carl is not described as trying to find an occasion to carry out hisvengeance killing. Instead, he and Ealdred tried to do away with each other. This period was another long one. Carl’s killing of Ealdred dates to 1038, twenty-three years after his father had killed Ealdred’s father (the first event in the ‘feud’), and at least ten after Thurbrand’s murder (the second event). The anonymous narrator proceeds from Ealdred’s death to say simply that ‘some time later, the grandson of Earl Ealdred, Earl Waltheof, … avenged the killing of his grandfather with the utmost slaughter.’ Some time later … In fact, the Settrington massacre, the fourth and final episode of the Northumbrian ‘feud’, took place in 1073/4, thirty-six years after Ealdred’s murder. Carl killed Ealdred four years before Waltheof was even born.
These four acts of murderous violence were thus spread over fifty-eight or fifty-nine years. Most were separated by at least a decade. A fairly long list of other lethal episodes can be compiled for Northumbrian history in this period – several are mentioned by our source. They involve some of the men and families involved in the story of the ‘feud’, largely because these were prominent families competing for political authority, but as far as we know they did not result in vendettas. This casts doubt on the idea that eleventh-century people really were governed by the demands of blood-feud. Furthermore, if blood-feud compelled individuals to act to defend family honour, as we are often given to believe, the Northumbrian events make even less sense; some of the people involved were almost as closely related to the people they were killing as to the people they were (allegedly) avenging.
A lot of selection is going on here, from a background of violence and killing, in order to create this story, this long, unilinear saga of murder and revenge. Like all historians, the ‘Durham Anonymous’ chose which story to tell and how to tell it. The history of eleventh-century Northumbria has thus come to be that of the ‘feud’ between the families of Uhtred and Thurbrand. However, the events were not experienced like that that as they occurred, as the complex mass of events unfolded. The hi/story of the Northumbrian feud was made after the event; it never actually happened.
When Waltheof slew Carl’s sons it is very likely that he said he was avenging his maternal grandfather, appealing to the notions of vengeance that existed at the time. Similarly, when Carl killed Ealdred it is likely that he justified this in terms of avenging his father, Thurbrand’s, death at Ealdred’s hands. Yet, each episode of the Northumbrian ‘feud’ can be explained according to the precise political circumstances that pertained when it took place. Uhtred’s and Thurbrand’s families were important Northumbrian kindreds, members of which occasionally found themselves in competition for authority. This region was distant from the power-centres of the eleventh-century kingdom of England so such rivalry was frequently resolved violently. The principal aim of each act was to remove a rival, not to avenge the murder of a long-dead kinsman. The deed was then justified by appeal to such a past wrong. Put another way, the actors in the story played for very specific stakes grounded in the politics of the presentbut legitimised and explained their actions by selecting an event from the past. This, they claimed (rather than the desire to own more land in Teesdale, for example), compelled them to do what they did. The past, in their view, absolved them of responsibility for wrong-doing in the present. They depicted their deeds as having been motivated by a higher principle.
The so-called Northumbrian feud neatly illustrates how people relate to the past and how they connect their conception of the past to their actions in the present. The past is used today not very differently, if at all. The past is dead and gone and is (beyond the ‘aesthetic moment’ discussed in chapter 1) incapable of exerting any force or pressure on anyone. That – perhaps rather obvious – point is the cornerstone of this book’s argument. When we say we are defined by the past, let alone prisoners of the past, we are in fact saying that we choose to define ourselves, or to constrain our own actions, according to our conception of what happened in the past. The past includes everything that happened between the Big Bang and a second ago: innumerable doings, sayings, thoughts. The past is incapable even of being comprehended as such, except in the most abstract temporal sense of ‘stuff that has happened’. Before it can properly be envisaged, it must be converted into a narrative, a hi/story. So, in an important sense, history comes before the past! To be comprehended, the past must be given a plot with a beginning a middle and an end (even if that end is not really an end but simply the present – a deferred ending).
Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away
A simple thought experiment may serve as a further illustration. At any given time we can conceive of yesterday in general abstract terms as ‘the day before today’ but before we can have any real grasp of it, for example in writing up a diary, we have to decide upon what things happened that give shape to that general concept, in other words, the things that turn it into a narrative. It may be that one simply selects the main structuring events of the day: got up; had breakfast; went to work; came home; watched TV; went to bed. It might be that, as here, these things have no especially marked ‘plot’ to them; they are just the things that happened: a sort of bare chronicle (we will return to the issue of chronicling). But even here the meaning of the events takes shape not just from their naming (‘breakfast’, ‘work’) but from their sequence. ‘Came home, went to bed, had breakfast’ would not usually make much sense (unless of course one worked the night shift and had breakfast in bed). That record gives shape and meaning to the abstract twenty-four hours of ‘yesterday’ and turns it into the narrative of an ordinary day. There has still been selection. This is hardly a record, even a chronicle, of the whole day. A selection of what, at the time, we thought mattered has been made. All the conversations at work and at home, the details of the trip to and from work, what was on the telly, what was eaten for breakfast (and lunch and dinner have even been omitted) and many other things have been left out.
Now suppose that, having written our diary, we have breakfast, go to work and are summoned to see the boss. We are then told that we’ve been made redundant. Now yesterday goes from being a dull day, its hours frittered and wasted in an off-hand way, to being ‘my last day in the job’. From being just another day those twenty-four hours now acquire an added, perhaps even a certain tragic, quality. The diary could be amended accordingly. Certainly, how our diarist saw that day would change importantly. Let us continue the experiment. Suppose that the person who asked you the time at the bus stop yesterday, and with whom you had a brief exchange of pleasantries, began to be a regular at the bus stop, someone you got to know, and who in time became your husband/wife/partner. Something that didn’t even seem worth recording on the day it happened and possibly for some time afterwards becomes a major shaping event of your life. The dull day has become ‘the day I met my partner’, possibly one of the most important days of your life – one would like to think so. Yet, at the time that that event happened, at the time that that ‘history’ was made, you didn’t even notice it. Only later does it become part of a history that ‘made you who you are’. Any number of variations on this basic scenario are possible, turning a bland unit of time into a key structuring element of the history of a life.
Note, though, that the events, the elements themselves, do not change; it is how one characterises them, how one selects them and positions them within the narrative, and how one casts that narrative. Events rarely carry an inherent meaning– those that do are the really traumatic ones. If we return to the diarist, losing her job that day may have been the beginning of a long period of years of unemployment and of being treated, in spite of one’s best efforts, as an idle scrounger by tabloid editors, journalists and their readers and by populist Conservative (and Labour) governments. Every moment of that conversation with the boss, every vain attempt to keep the job, to talk the boss out of her decision might become etched on the memory; the last day at work becomes a poignant twenty-four hours. Alternatively, though, the diarist might have gone home and applied for another job, been successful, risen to the top of the company, met her partner and lived a very happy period of her life. In that case, one doubts that any especial elements of the redundancy conversation are remembered and the event itself becomes something of a happy moment of transition to something better. And didn’t I show her in the end? That ‘last day at work’ remains a boring, unremembered twenty-four hours. But it happened just the same, in just the same way. The historical Real, the un- (or pre-) symbolised mass of ‘things that happened’, is always in its place.
Another variant future allows us to see the issue of how histories are made more clearly. Suppose that, after a month or so on the dole the diarist gets a new job, similar to the last, and her life continues roughly as before. How, and even whether, she remembers losing her old job is entirely a personal issue. The act of being made redundant can be seen as a great personal affront or with equanimity as a hard decision that had to be made; the boss might become viewed as a personal enemy, even (or perhaps especially) if thought of in a friendly light earlier, or her standing in the eyes of the diarist might not change. The diarist might still blame herself for not working harder, even though in fact she was a model employee, or retrospectively build herself up into a perfect company worker despite in reality having been a feckless slacker who was always likely to be first in line if job-losses had to be made. And of course none of these histories is even capable of knowing the actual personal motivations of the boss herself, or the details of the company finances, etc.
These scenarios, at a micro level, illustrate the relationship between time, experience, record and the creation of history. Such meaning that events have depends upon their place in a retrospectively constructed narrative. The occurrences that matter have been chosen and placed in order (sometimes, of course, they are moved out of chronological sequence, whether deliberately or otherwise); their meaning depends on their juxtaposition with the other events selected within the type of narrative told; and that type of narrative depends entirely upon the contingent attitude of the narrator/rememberer. However they are seen later on, though, at the time the events in the story were experienced in exactly the same way. This is exactly how histories are made and written. In the tale of Thurbrand and Uhtred, the ‘Northumbrian feud’, the exact same procedures were followed. A selection was made (whether by the anonymous writer or his informants) from a vast number of different events and this was then arranged in a sequence to form the story of a feud, culminating in the tale of how Earl Waltheof avenged his grandfather. Had the author or his sources been more inclined to support Carl’s family, one imagines that it would have been constructed in a very different way, probably from a different selection of past happenings.
The past, as the unity of all time, thought and action up until this very moment, here, now, happened and cannot be changed. But, as I have just shown, it is absolutely meaningless in and of itself. It only takes on meaning through the way its contents are selected and arranged in the present. That historyis something that can be and is changed. Regularly.
None of the foregoing represents a startling new departure in ways of thinking about the past and history, although it still makes some people uncomfortable. After all, a removal of responsibility for present actions through placing the blame upon an inherited history is fairly comforting. What the discussion shows is that the past in itself has no weight. Being dead and gone it is as light as air. What weighs upon us is our own creation of a past, our own choices of how to see the past; our own decision to see ourselves and our actions as made by the past. The purpose of this book is to show how we should liberate ourselves from these notions as a means towards a freer future. This means rethinking why we do (or should do) history: ‘why history matters’.
Saturday, 23 March 2013
Many of you may know my views on journalists. But even by their own sub-slug standards, Richard Littlejohn is a slimy, evil wretch. Bleating by journalistsabout press freedom clearly involves their freedom to hound innocent people to their death for their lifestyle. Here is the latest of Littlejohn's exploits, for which - let's remember - he is paid a million a year. Please sign the petition and help put a stop to this. There may be, as Charlie Brooker recently wrote, some right-wing slimeballs (Dellingpole, the Rev Mullins and their Torygraph blogging ilk) whose sole purpose in (what they consider to be) 'life' is merely to wind up the liberal intelligentsia, and with whom getting riled is merely to notch up a point to them, but Littlejohn churns out hate-speech week-in, week-out, pandering to the vilest prejudices of the Mail readership. There must be, to borrow that quote about 'Fire-His-Ass' Ferguson, a line somewhere and Littlejohn, in my view, has crossed it once too often. Here a mealy-mouthed apology cannot suffice.
Monday, 18 March 2013
If you live within striking distance of Oxford and have a: nothing better to do this Wednesday (20th), and b: 11 quid to spare, you can hear me talking about Arthur (including some ideas not in the book) at the Oxford Literary Festival. Details here. (As with the book-jacket blurb - not the bit by Michael Wood [having a plug from him on my book was quite possibly the coolest thing ever to happen in my career] - the description is a bit rubbish, and misleading, but still...)
Friday, 15 March 2013
Thursday, 14 March 2013
here. I think he's very satisfyingly got the point of what I was trying to do and why it matters. There are some nice reviews, too on Amazon and US Amazon (although, since they don't pay their taxes and do employ thugs, I feel I should urge you to look elsewhere for your copy - best of all support your local bookshop) and one by Dan Jones in the Sunday Times (but that, being a Murdoch paper, operates a pay-per-view system so I can't link to it). There's also a positive review in the new BBC History magazine by Ryan Lavelle (Univ of Winchester), who opens with the thought that the cover may head the list for the 2013 prize for the most misleading book-cover of the year. Ha!
For an alternative view, as they say (usually before citing something I've written), Google Books has two reviews that give it a bit of a caning. Tedious indeed...
For an alternative view, as they say (usually before citing something I've written), Google Books has two reviews that give it a bit of a caning. Tedious indeed...
Monday, 11 March 2013
Today, comes from Martha Nussbaum's blurb for the back of the updated edition of Stanley Cavell, Must we mean what we say?
'[N]ow, as then, new forms of reductionism, scientism, and sheer flight prove appealing for those for whom a complex human understanding is more than their hearts can bear.'
Sunday, 10 March 2013
Here is the usually rather brilliant Stewart Lee on the subject of the decline of the intellectual. I'm uncomfortable with the untypically careless juxtaposition of 'cash-rich Asia' and 'giving idiots money' and I'm sure every half-wit in the land will leap upon it with glee (half-wits hate Stewart Lee with a vengeance). The decline in intelligent debate, or the role of intellectuals in public life/culture in the UK is a serious issue. Sadly, the management of UK universities (including a disproportionate number of second-rate historians) has played a very significant part in this. See this 'Thought for the Day' from 18 months ago.
Thursday, 7 March 2013
|First as farce...|
But anyway, now that I’ve drawn a bit of traffic and attention, let me meditate on the implications of all this for History. As it stands this all looks (especially, I imagine, to outsiders) more than a little bit pathetic: like a pissing contest between two overgrown schoolboys. You have to think that if this is the best that modern history can do the discipline really is in a parlous state. You could say that the fact that this became an exchange at all was a victory for FHA (see here for an analogy). Regular readers of this blog will know that I have quite a lot of time for Sir Regius even if, as in this episode, he sometimes makes you want to give him a good shake. The British Medical Association, I believe, tells us it’s dangerous to shake small children who become vexatious but I’m not sure what its stance is on Regius Professors of History, even where, as here, the boundary between the two categories becomes a little blurred. Really, though, you do wish that sometimes he’d just forego his desire to have the last word and rise above the provocation offered by FHA who, as a cleverly commercially-manufactured, million-selling crowd-pleaser is surely little more than History’s answer to Justin Bieber or, perhaps better, given his age, origins and likely lack of consequence, The Bay City Rollers. [Actually that doesn't really work as I suspect it'd be the parents rather than the teeny-boppers that would mostly be into him; we'll come back to glib analogies.] After all, if you read his initial piece in the London Review of Books and compare it with FHA’s response, Sir Regius wins hands down. His response to FHA’s goading only undermines that.
So this was never going to be a clash of intellectual heavyweights but it descends to such a level that I suggest the referee steps in and disqualifies the pair of them for bringing the game into disrepute. You might say I’m in no position to criticise anyone on this count, and you’d be right, but then I’m not a Regius Professor or a knight of the realm and I never will be. Nor am I a Harvard professor with a senior research post at Jesus College Oxford, and nor will I ever be. How does it make any sense at all to judge competence to think about these things by the number of popular books sold or TV appearances, let alone the number of school-aged children? If we go by the first two then we’d have to proclaim Andrew Roberts and Dan Snow as the greatest living historians, and then God help us all. As to the third, when did fecundity become a historical qualification? I suspect that all this – like those academics who feature pictures of their children on the web-pages – comes down to a statement that, believe it or not, I’ve had sex and here’s the proof. By those lights – I doubt I’ve sold even 10,000 books, only have a personal chair in a provincial university, never went to Oxbridge, have never had a TV series and am a mere divorcee whose loins have, to date at least, proved fruitless – I’m a nobody (perhaps there is something in it after all…) and I doubt either of them gives a damn what I think, probably rightly too. That said, I suspect that my first (and worst) book may have had more influence upon my own little corner of the discipline, and the way people think about the practice of history and archaeology within it, than their oeuvre has thus far had on their (admittedly rather larger and more populous) patches. On the other hand, my father was a history teacher so I do have some (though maybe not much) experience of what professionals in that field might think. I also like to think that I am rather prettier than either of them but let’s let that pass. [That last bit was irony by the way; I know that some people who read my words aren’t good at spotting that.]
This debate, if we can even call it that, barely reaches the dizzy intellectual heights of a playground ‘I may be rubbish at football but at least I don’t smell’ exchange, but it brings out a crucial issue. It takes us to the heart of the crisis facing history. When thinking about raising what I have called ‘the siege’ this gives us a choice (but in detail I’ll have to come back to that another time). It may not be a proper choice, as both Sir Regius and FHA are conservative in their views of history (the difference being whether the c in conservative is upper or lower case). The way they do history does not differ, fundamentally; it's just that Sir Regius is (in my view)
rather considerably better at it. But there's an important choice to be made all the same. There is a vital difference between them and it behoves everyone with any sort of claim to being interested in history to choose on which side of that difference they stand. As will become clear, my view is that (although, clearly, they don’t) serious, committed historians ought to take their stance on the side of Sir Regius, for all its eventual limitations. My view will come as no surprise, given that I have made – on this very blog – many points similar points to his. This is not to say that I don’t think there are two or three points that Sir Regius makes in his LRB article that are fundamentally mistaken (one or two examples of incoherence are pointed up in the letters), but there’s no space to delve into those.
On the one hand, FHA’s view (backed by Gove) is that history is sequential fact-learning (they call it ‘narrative’ but let’s be clear) focused upon Britain. Sir Regius on the other hand supports the status quo and the relative stress laid upon source criticism, imagination, empathetic exercise and so on, in which the wider world features at least as strongly. The latter, says FHA, has been a disaster, although no evidence is given as to why. All we are offered is sneering assertion, anecdote and hearsay from people (unsurprisingly) who share his viewpoint (e.g. an elitist diatribe by an inexperienced teacher in reactionary, Gove-founded rag Standpoint), rounded off with the conclusion that anyone who disagrees doesn’t have a view worth listening to. This, I should say, is pretty typical of males of FHA’s socio-educational background and intellectual formation: they argue by swaggering assertion, shiny, glib (but paperweight) analogy and a supreme self-confidence born of the notion (drummed into them from the age of eight or so) that their views are inherently superior to everyone else’s because they themselves are, by virtue of their socio-educational background, superior to everyone else. Ironically, this eventually makes them far worse historians than everyone else because a little self-doubt is essential to good history. FHA is a fine example of all that (as is the historian to whom, for legal reasons, we at HotE frequently refer as Gussie Finknottle); Sir Regius rather less so (however bullish he may seem, his irresistible urge to answer back to every criticism speaks, to my mind, of a nagging and persistent insecurity in spite of all his considerable and well-deserved success, which is kind of sweet really). Be all that as it may, the only evidence proffered in support of the Gove/FHA contention comes in the comments to Sir Regius’ LRB piece where one of the devisers of the Schools History Project (SHP) proclaims it a failure because of a flight away from the subject among students given a choice. I am unconvinced either that this is, in itself, a disaster or that the solution is to pander to what excites teenagers. Is the solution to the flight of teenagers away from the lab sciences the introduction of more experiments featuring bad egg gas and explosions? I’m not a scientist but I expect the answer is no.
Let us consider FHA’s position. Note, first, that everyone who does not share his position, or who defends the current situation is ‘politicised’ or 'partisan', as though his own position isn’t. This has long been a standard tactic of demagogues of the Right, to berate educators or other holders of office as ‘politicised’ or 'partisan', essentially for not being politicised or partisan in the way they’d like. The conservative or Conservative view, you see, is not political; it’s not Right, it’s just right: the way things should be. This would be undercut by FHA’s desire to disrupt the status quo with a radical move back to the alleged good old days, pre-SHP, but here he makes a currently not untypical move by the Right (and pseudo-Left), which is to denigrate and thus, in a way, politically decentre, the status quo as ‘the establishment’. The move attempts to recoup a sort of fundamental conservatism even while proposing radical, reactionary change. Note how FHA scorns Oxbridge ivory towers, in spite of being an independent-school-and-Oxford-educated beneficiary of all the advantages (including, let it be said, access to popular media) that that background brings; in spite of having taught at Oxbridge for most of his career and retaining a grace-and-favour post at Jesus College (ironically, Sir Regius’ alma mater).
What Gove and FHA offer is narrative and fact. I have argued before on this blog that factual historical narrative does not teach you ‘how we got where we are’ or help one to understand one’s place in the world, and that it is not ‘relevant’, as relevance is usually understood; there’s no need for me to repeat that argument. The points to stress are that any narrative depends upon selection and choice (and is thus politically implicated) and that no facts, historical or otherwise, exist independently of language. This means both that the language we choose to describe facts (‘victory’ or ‘defeat’, for example) is not neutral and that the function that facts fulfil within narrative depends, as in linguistic syntax, upon their juxtapositions to other facts, the choice of the mode of the narrative, and so on. I’ve made these points before (they’re hardly novel anyway). Simple narrative is not – it cannot be – politically neutral. The national narrative – and this is clear from Gove’s own speech – is predicated upon being, in itself, explanation, and upon the notion that modern Britain is somehow the best of all possible worlds. Similar points undermine the highly incoherent notion of ‘cultural literacy’, supported by Gove and other right-wingers, and ‘national memory’ but there’s no space to go into that. It is impossible to claim that a return to a focus on British historical narrative is anything other than shot through with politically-laden ideas or that those ideas are not precisely the ones that Gove’s opponents accuse them of being. The implications of any attempt to claim either of these things will emerge below.
Why does it matter to study British history? “Surely”, says FHA, “they [Sir Regius and his ilk] can't sincerely think it's acceptable for children to leave school (as mine have all done) knowing nothing whatever about the Norman conquest, the English civil war or the Glorious Revolution, but plenty (well, a bit) about the Third Reich, the New Deal and the civil rights movement?” Surely. Note the rhetorical strategy. It’s there too in a response by another Cambridge professor (let’s, for legal reasons, call him ‘Grave Robin’) to Sir Regius’ LRB article: “I doubt that anyone [anyone] interested in history, professionally or otherwise, thinks that the purpose of studying the past is to acquire skills, let alone that what Evans describes as ‘the transmission and regurgitation of “facts”’ is unimportant.” Let me say, first, that I don’t see any reason at all why it is ipso factobad to know ‘nothing about the Norman Conquest, the English Civil War or the Glorious Revolution but plenty … about the Third Reich, the New Deal and the civil rights movement’; at least I don’t see that leaving school knowing nothing about the Norman Conquest, the English Civil War or the Glorious Revolution but plenty about the Third Reich, the New Deal and the civil rights movement is any worse than leaving school knowing nothing about the Third Reich, the New Deal and the civil rights movement but plenty about the Norman Conquest, the English Civil War or the Glorious Revolution. The only argument in Gove’s or FHA’s favour is the ‘cultural literacy’ one, that not knowing about the facts they list puts a student at a disadvantage in a culture where political and other participation requires the ability to talk knowledgably about the Norman Conquest, etc. But what if we want to create a culture where it’s important to be able to talk knowledgably about the civil rights movement or the New Deal (no prizes for guessing why the latter wouldn’t be on FHA’s list!). Even speaking as a specialist in pre-modern history I have to say I’d rather the latter culture than the former, but I’d prefer, to either, a culture where people had the skills to be able to think critically about a historical event and look up and assess the facts of the matter, rather than just thinking that fact-knowing was all there was to civil or political engagement. So, even as someone interested in history, at a professional level, actually I most certainly do see the fundamental purpose of a historical education as the acquisition of skills (maybe Robin and I differ over what is a skill) and I do see the regurgitation of facts as unimportant. So, FHA, we surely do, and, Robin, you doubt wrongly. And?
Then the defence becomes, via the historian to whom, for legal reasons, we will refer as Long John, author of that mighty historiographical work British History for Dummies (a tome curiously absent from his Anglia Ruskin web-site but of which I was the reader – you can fill in your own ‘target audience focus group’ gag here) - just, you might say, the man to advise the Tory Party - that ‘the kids’ want to know what happened. They like stories; they want to be entertained or excited. Sure, but I return to my science analogy. Can you imagine a lab science curriculum based upon considerations like these? It would involve the listing of things that happen, a descent to the experiments with the most dramatic results. Add X to Y and … Bang! Woo! Cool! So what? You could make an analogous, and equally coherent, argument (to FHA’s about history-teaching) that all ‘hard science’ teaching should focus on the learning of results: knowing what happens when you mix X and Y, add A to B, or do Z in fashion C. It’d be useful, practically. It’d certainly give students some orientation in the world they inhabit. But science (I’m not a scientist as I keep saying but I don’t think I’m way off-beam here) is about knowing principles, knowing why these things happen and how you’d test the notion that they do, or that they necessarily do, not just that they do. The question one then has to ask of Gove, FHA and the rest, quite apart from querying their assumption that history teaching of the current kind is necessarily not exciting or interesting (and Sir Regius in a letter replying to the replies to his article – yes, again – provides decent evidence to the contrary), is why they think that historical education should be less than scientific?
In my view, one produces politically-engaged citizens through teaching general principles and the skills of finding out if or why, of testing the extent to which, those principles are valid, not by drumming into them a series of events whose importance is held to be self-evident in a story which is explanation and whose justification is the idea that the present is the best of all possible worlds. Unlike the author of the Standpoint piece, I just cannot see the notion that teachers challenge supposedly eternal canonical ‘truths’ in ‘progressive’ education as a bad thing (it’s telling that ‘progressive’ is employed a dirty word). Grave Robin feels he’s scored a real point by pointing out that this Tory view is in fact … wait for it … a ‘Whig’ view of history (a point that Sir Regius had made in any case) but it’s a point that goes nowhere except to the curious counter-factual that if we had a view of history, now, that was based around Tory views of the eighteenth century it would be – get this – different. Blinding. The drumming of a standard factual narrative into schoolchildren will not produce critically-engaged citizens, it will produce uncritical acceptance of the status quo as the inevitable and best outcome of ‘our island story’ – that’s why the Right like the idea. Would the ludicrous parody of a science curriculum I set out earlier produce better scientists or citizens better equipped to deal with the world around them? I’m not a scientist but I expect the answer is no.
So let’s return to the Glorious Revolution. How would knowing about it make you a better citizen than knowing about Rosa Parks and MLK? What on earth is there in learning about the English Civil War, let alone the Norman Conquest, that would make you a more engaged citizen? OK, next time the issue of the Divine Right of Kings or the legality of levying Ship Money without parliamentary consent become political hot potatoes, the next time that the King of Norway and the Duke of Normandy team up for a cunningly simultaneous invasion of England, we’ll be looking to you for political and strategic advice. For Gove/FHA and co., there are two responses available to this admittedly facetious point. One (the better) is that the significance of an event transcends its factual specifics; that it’s not the what but the how and why that matter. The other is that the importance of the events of 1066, 1642 or 1688 consists simply in the fact that they, in and of, themselves led to the situation we find ourselves in – in Britain – today, whereas the civil rights movement (rather arguably) didn’t.
Consider the first response. It produces, in return, two questions. First: how does one evaluate issues of how and why without source criticism? Second: if the significance of knowing about 1066, 1642 or 1688 does not consist in the specifics of those events, if its value is more than simply learning a triumphal ‘island story’ narrative, if its role in forming a politically-engaged and responsible citizenry transcends the event itself, then why learn about that particular event rather than the end of the Roman Empire or the coronation of Charlemagne or the revolutions of 1848? If there is a transcendent value to the study of events, is it not in explaining and evaluating them and their significance? If one is to explain an event, rather than just learn it, then one has to question the idea that it simply followed on naturally from the preceding event in the sequence – that other things were possible. Thus one questions narrative as explanation (and thus, at least implicitly, the importance of narrative context). If one wants to evaluate an event, rather than just learn it, one has to weigh up its positive and negative effects - unless of course one simply wants to teach children that all things are for the best that lead to the best of all possible worlds. Weighing up positives and negatives, critically, implies looking at the problems of the sources (or ‘identifying bias’ in the awful language of school history that we have to spend so long trying to exorcise at university): source criticism. If one wants to get away from a simple depersonalised history of institutions or Great Men and Battles (and note that the triumphal island story does rather minimise any sort of attention to gender), evaluating the consequences of an event involves an exercise in trying to think how people at the time, of different sorts, experienced them – unless, as I keep saying, it’s all for the best in our celebratory island story. Doing that means an appeal to a shared humanity, in other words an exercise in imagination and empathy.
What I am arguing, then, is that the FHA/Gove/Long John approach cannot logically remain within the terms of its own rhetoric - unless it aims actively to suppress critical evaluation, and/or unless it aims no higher than the promulgation of historical facts, whether as an empty-headed Lang-esque series of lame puns or a Deary-esque sequence of gory factoids, training history students to be no more than prurient raconteurs, or as a triumphal, teleological nationalist narrative, unless – in other words – it does exactly what its critics accuse it of doing; unless – in fine – it ceases not merely to be a historical education but an education of any kind.
Let me put that another way. Unless it adopts the second response listed above to the question of how the value of knowing about an event transcends its factual detail (that the importance of the events of 1066, 1642 or 1688 consists in the simple fact that, in and of themselves, they led to the situation we find ourselves in – in Britain – today whereas, say, the civil rights movement didn’t) and thus admits to the charges its opponents lay before it, the Gove/FHA idea of school history cannot logically remain within its own rhetorical parameters. The moment it tries to transcend the accusation of narrow, teleological, triumphalist, nationalist fact-learning, it transgresses – it cannot but transgress – onto the territory, aims, ideals and principles of the ‘progressive’ SHP history-teaching that it claims to despise. The moment it claims to be other than what its opponents accuse it of being, it empties its own rhetoric of any and all content and reveals itself as what it is: a narrow-minded reactionary attempt to play politics by pandering to the lowest common-denominator amongst Daily Mail columnists (like FHA himself) and the more gullible elements of their readership.
The reason why schools history prepares pupils so badly for university history has nothing to do with the current curriculum or the ways the subject is taught, or by whom. The problem lies in political interference in schools and in the examination processes that that has engendered. There are great history teachers, there are mediocre ones, and there are terrible ones, as in any other subject. I had a mix at my school, from wonderful to dreadful. The problem came (and here things do get ironic for the FHA view) with the Thatcherite and sub-Thatcherite (New Labour) mantra of choice. The desire to ‘enable’ parents as consumers and give them a choice of local schools led to the production of league tables according to exam results (everyone knows how problematic those tables are). Once that happened then – naturally and indeed rightly – teachers demanded more transparency about the marking of examination papers, how marks were awarded and so on. That has led in turn to the current situation where teachers have to teach to the test, where they have to drill their students in mark-scoring. That leaves the legacy that we have to deal with in universities, a deep-seated, ingrained belief that there will be measurable ways to get specific marks. Recently I was asked (not by a bad or lazy student) ‘how many historians do I need to cite to get the best mark?’ Students write in specific ways because they are drilled into thinking that they will get them marks. None of any of that has anything at all to do with the ‘progressive’ history curriculum. It certainly wouldn’t get any better under Gove’s reforms. What would really improve schools history would be to remove political interference from it. But, as Sir Regius says, that’s unlikely ever to happen. History is (or it ought to be) dangerous. I tell prospective students that a history degree is (or ought to be) three years of thinking dangerously. FHA benefited from precisely that, you might say. It’s a shame he now wants to make it so safe for everyone else.