Thursday, March 10, 2011

What is school history for?

Richard J. Evans writes in the LRB about the Tories' attempt to make school history less critical, more "narrative"-based, and generally more old-fashioned:
The demand, really, is for a celebratory history: how otherwise could it serve as the cement of national identity? Sample exam questions proposed by the Better History group for the new curriculum have included: ‘Why did Nelson and Wellington become national heroes?’; ‘What liberties did English people enjoy by the end of the 17th century that they hadn’t had at the start?’; and ‘How dangerous was the Spanish Armada?’ – the examinee, it’s presumed, isn’t going to answer from the point of view of the Spanish. 

There are two lines of objection to this, both with considerable force, one minor and one less so. The minor  one is that it'd all be white-people-centric and thus wrong for a diverse society. The proposed alternatives could be either (a) teach people of different ethnic groups different celebratory histories, (b) teach everyone a fairly diverse history. (a) is, I think, rightly horrifying to many people, and anyway defeats the purpose of creating a "cement"; (b) is a sensible (within-these-parameters) but not radical fix, which would have the incidental advantage of distinguishing Cameron from the more off-putting Little England types.

The major objection is that celebratory history is intrinsically a bad, stultifying, sort of thing that leaves people incompetent to analyze texts later in life:

Even more calamitous is the prospect of history teaching in the schools confining itself to the transmission and regurgitation of ‘facts’. [...] When I started teaching history at university in the 1970s, many first-year students were incapable of critical reading of this kind. (I ran into trouble with one class when I began to point out the problems in the arguments put forward by one of the books I had set them to read. ‘Why did you make us read it,’ one of them complained, ‘if you don’t agree with it?’) Better history teaching in schools changed all that, but now Gove wants to abandon these skills all over again. Better History declares that ‘it is by the acquisition and use of historical knowledge that historians are primarily judged’ – but in reality that only makes a Mastermind contestant.
It is possible to teach actual skills only if history is taught in depth, and that means a focus on a limited number of specialised topics. 

At some level I'm very sympathetic to all of this, but it is both muddled and blinkered to think of school history as being about the training of future academic historians. Evans distinguishes, near the end of his article, between history and "memory," but it is not obvious to me that history-the-academic-discipline is what should be taught at the high-school level. After all, what does society lose if people like Evans have to teach kids how to question sources -- yes, it's a waste of their time, but in this case they'd probably be better at it than the average schoolteacher. Is it that one should train kids to be anti-authoritarian because "this makes them better citizens" etc.? If so, then the Tories should, almost by definition, object to the idea; besides, it would surely be easier to teach "critical thinking" in a class about contemporary issues...

I am beset here by a basic ambivalence about what school should be for, beyond literacy, numeracy, and related survival skills. It takes people much longer to grow up than it does to become literate; what -- other than socializing -- is one to do with the rest of the time? One line of thought is to focus on what kids are good at, maybe beef up the math curriculum ("teh Chinese are invading!"), teach more foreign languages, etc. but there is only so much that one is ever going to use and it seems hard (though possible with some backing from neuroscience) to justify teaching explicitly useless skills. Another line of thought is to have everybody acquire an agreed-upon set of references and symbols, preferably reasonably rich and ambiguous, that can then be used in various kinds of civic and artistic discourse. This is perhaps roughly what's implied by teaching history as memory -- it's like doing the Greek myths, but with that frisson of fact... and, of course, with the right place names.

Evans's article strongly reminded me of Gordon Wood's criticism of Jill Lepore's book about the Tea Party, which is that she was unreasonably dismissive of memory as opposed to history. (I'll note in passing that I enjoyed Wood's book The Purpose of the Past on the whole.) Here is Bernard Bailyn, quoted by Wood on the slave trade:
the memory of the slave trade is not distant; it cannot be reduced to an alien context; and it is not a critical, rational reconstruction. It is for us, in this society, a living and immediate, if vicarious, experience. It is buried in our consciousness and shapes our view of the world. Its sites, its symbols, its clues lie all about us.
This is particularly relevant, and dangerous, in America, where the past's shadows are large and proximate. Memory is a political project, which is why it appeals to Gove and Cameron; but these partial, allegorical readings of the past are the only reason we care about what happened. To the extent that this is true, I wonder if it wouldn't be worthwhile to try and move the emblems as far away from the present as possible, to lower the temperature and have the myths be more mythical, and their literal truth less important for practical purposes. If liberalism and conservatism centered around alternative readings of the Metamorphoses rather than the Fourteenth Amendment, perhaps we'd have a saner public discourse?

Addendum Wood's article "Conspiracy and the paranoid style: Causality and deceit in the eighteenth century" has one of the best subtitles ever.

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