Monday, 14 September 2009

Will we myth history if it's left in the past?

I saw Stephen's posting the other day about the way history is taught in schools and thought about posting a response then.

But I'm glad I didn't, as today I read another couple of articles which touch on this debate, from the appalling Melanie Philips and the mercurial Yasmin Alibhai-Brown respectively. Both bemoan the lack of historical knowledge among so many young people today, as shown by a survey that showed some people think Winston Churchill was the first man on the moon or that the vast majority of people couldn't name a single 19th century British Prime Minister. But they do so from radically different standpoints: Philips because a lack of historical knowledge undermines patriotism and Alibhai-Brown because it undermines our ability to think critically about our society.

These two articles highlight the two contrasting approaches to teaching the subject that Stephen highlighted: history as myth and history as a means of examing the truth about our society.

Like Stephen, I wasn't educated in Scotland, so I can't comment directly on the way history is taught here. But like him, I would be surprised if field trips to Culloden or Bannockburn just promoted a narrow nationalistic outlook. I recall my own schooldays when we had trips up to the Imperial War Museum in London: they didn't turn me into a raving Teutonophobe or a flag-waving British patriot; if anything just the reverse. That's why I think Alibhai-Brown's approach is rather more rooted in reality than Melanie Philips.

But there is one sense in which Philips is correct, which is that any society does have to have some idea of where it has come from if it is to have shared values that keep people from being constantly at one another's throats. Whether we think of ourselves as Scottish, British, English, Jamaican, British Asian or whatever, there does have to be some understanding of what that means and where that identity comes from.

However, one question I do wish to ask is whether the English have an unusual lack of interest in their own history. In Scotland, the vast majority of people will have at least some awareness of the Highland Clearances, and almost every TV programme on Scotland's history will say something about it - as Peter Capaldi's excellent A Portrait Of Scotland did last week. But in England, knowledge of the Enclosure Acts - which had similar aims of creating larger agricultural units and had the effect of driving a lot of people away from land they had previously claimed ownership of - is more or less confined to specialist academic historians.

Now, maybe this doesn't matter too much. Perhaps Scotland is held back by focusing too much on its history and England benefits from its amnesia about its past. And to take a more extreme example, the conflict in Northern Ireland has been fuelled by a striking obsession with past wrongs, with both sides commemorating ancient battles and rivalries which are perhaps better left to decay gently within the pages of dusty history books.

But history IS important. Maybe it doesn't matter too much if students don't know who Lord Liverpool or Lord Rosebery were. Maybe it doesn't particularly matter that the English tend to think of an anti-Semitic rapist and probable murderer who barely visited his kingdom and bled it dry to fund his military adventures in the Middle East as a 'good king' (Richard I). Or that a well-regarded military commander, able administrator and literate Renaissance prince is popularly viewed as a deformed hunchbacked tyrannical monster who committed infanticide (Richard III).

However, a lack of historical understanding of our society and how we got to where we are now will affect us. Alibhai-Brown is absolutely correct that understanding our history is a key part of thinking about where we're going as a society. Our colonial past does have an impact on the sort of society we are now, for instance. And to take one important recent example, Tony Blair's lack of historical understanding certainly contributed to getting us entangled in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But, as Philips shows, if we don't have a critical understanding of how our past affects the way we are now, there are all too many people willing to fill the gap with myths. Philips seems to want to cultivate an uncritical patriotism which somehow blames 'multiculturalism' for the lack of understanding of our past. That's the same sort of myth-making territory that people like the BNP occupy with their dream of a country which is exclusively white and Christian, rather than recognising that Britain has been shaped by and benefited from successive waves of immigration.

The same myth-making tradition is also present among some strands of Scottish nationalism. To listen to some people, you might get the impression that the next significant date in Scottish history after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 (in my view a necessary defeat for the Jacobite dreams of a revived absolutist monarchy) was 1967, when Scotland's football team beat England 3-2 to become 'World Champions'. I exaggerate, but not by much. It's the same myth-making which has resulted in Braveheart becoming such a popular film among nationalists, despite it being a complete historical travesty.

So, where does all this leave us now? Well, one thing I can definitely say is that Henry Ford got it completely wrong: history is NOT more or less bunk. Sure, historical parallels are never exact and history is always written by the victors (the popular view of Richard III referred to above was largely created by Tudor writers seeking to justify the victory of the usurper known to history as Henry VII). But without it, we will be prey to being dominated more by myths than reality - and that could lead us to some very nasty places indeed. It's in our own interests to ensure that hsitory has a future.

1 comment:

Matthew Huntbach said...

Agreed, but does anyone really hold to the traditional views of Richard I and Richard III these days? That is, if anyone is aware of their existence enough to hold any view? How many English schoolkids could at least name them and have some idea of where they fit in historically?

The best lessons that can be learnt here is how there are often several ways of looking at things, there isn't always an absolute answer, but people pick the views they like, and the powerful can do so in order to dominate the agenda.

The ability to be able to see and discuss competing viewpoints really is valuable, so if history could be taught that way rather than just as "facts", it would be great. Plus the ability to spot hidden agendas - great, too.

As you say, the enclosures really are a crucial part if English history, we all should be aware of what happened there. Why are the Scottish clearances so well known and the English equivalent not? The English Reformation is fascinating, but is it possible to teach it in a way that reveals also the politics behind it? Clever kids could be got to read Cobbett's "History of the Protestant Reformation", an amazing piece of polemic, but in a critical fashion seeing how it reflected also what the politics of Cobbett's time.

Liberal Democrat Blogs