Seán Lang, 18 October 2007
The Guardian sketchwriter Simon Hoggart has often commented that the way to tell if a statement is mere motherhood-and-apple-pie or a serious pronouncement is to see if anyone could conceivably hold to its opposite (Hoggart 11.7.2007). I might plausibly claim that history encourages free thought and debate, hones skills of analysis and embodies all the values and characteristics of a democratic society; I might cite examples of repressive states that have sought to control the study of history; I might point to classroom teachers helping pupils to spot bias in historical sources and I will certainly trot out that old quotation from Khrushchev that historians are ‘dangerous people’ whose work should be strictly controlled (Wolfe 1960).(Footnote 1). But would any subject hold out against these values and claim it stands for censorship or indoctrination or the suppression of free thought? After all, history has no monopoly on promoting free thinking or debate (at my school the fiercest arguments came up in English rather than history lessons), nor is it the only subject to require close textual analysis, nor can it bask alone in the satisfaction at having fallen foul of dictators, as writers, musicians, geographers, theologians, scientists and even mathematicians can testify. If we look for history’s unique values in the skills and attributes it engenders we risk ending up not down a blind alley but on a busy motorway, alongside just about all other subjects on the curriculum, in different vehicles, to be sure, but all heading in the same direction.
History’s values lie rather in our relationship with history’s unique subject matter. One can see this to some extent in the periods historians are attracted to. Marxists like E.P. Thompson (1963) or Eric Hobsbawm (1977) have overwhelmingly been attracted to nineteenth and twentieth century social and political history, the period which best illustrates Marxist analysis; Tories like David Starkey (2004), Jonathan Clarke (1986) or Andrew Roberts (2000) have felt at home at the Tudor court or in the world of the eighteenth or nineteenth century elite.
But, although each no doubt derives some of their political outlook from their history, this is still essentially history reflecting the values of its writers; what values does it promote? If we follow Gibbon’s line that history is nothing but ‘the record of the crimes and follies of mankind’ then perhaps we derive little beyond a smug feeling of superiority (Gibbon 1963). Sometimes, indeed, the values of one period are transmitted to a new generation almost verbatim: teachers have expressed concern that the current over-emphasis on Nazi Germany can lead pupils to imitate Nazi rhetoric (Historical Association 2006); more positively, many modern campaigners have paid tribute to the inspiration they received at school from studying the Chartists or the Suffragettes (Casciani 2003; Flett 2006).
But historical values are not usually transferred quite so directly from one period to another. Even if they were, each age has its own values, so we would be unlikely to derive from history a coherent set of ‘historical values’ that we can all share and benefit from. Historical values lie not in any particular topic or period, but in two characteristics unique to it: 1) that it deals with the past and therefore with societies significantly different from our own, and 2) that our knowledge of the past - all of it - is derived from source material that is always, of necessity, incomplete (Tosh 2006).
The first gives us a sense of perspective. Like star gazers aware of our tiny place in the vast cosmos, historians can place modern events in the context of time. This is not to talk glibly of history repeating itself, though historians often do discern instructive patterns or parallels. The simple knowledge that ours is not the only society, that ours is not the only way things have been done, and that future ages might judge our beliefs and actions as harshly as we judge those of the past, can be a very salutary corrective. The second, however, imposes history’s distinctive discipline. New material is being uncovered all the time, sometimes hidden away but often enough simply sitting unnoticed on an archive shelf, and this material always alters, sometimes hugely, the version of the past we thought we had and understood. This is why the good historian treats source material with great care, and why it is no surprise that David Irving, found in court to have acted as a charlatan, operated by the systematic misrepresentation of historical sources (Evans 2002). Historians are aware that the most apparently well-founded of statements can be undermined by new evidence, so that while historians might write with confidence and verve, the best of them know that all such judgements will always be provisional.
What this adds up to, I would argue, is that history conveys wisdom. Wisdom usually results from knowledge gained in the course of a long life, but historians have the experiences of whole centuries to draw on and the best historians will know a lot about them. This does not mean historians have any special knowledge of how events will unfold, still less that their political judgement is any more sound than anyone else’s, but a knowledge of history, if gained through the discipline of history, is a corrective to certainty, to dogmatism, to the insistent claim that This Is The Way or that There Is No Alternative. History is the fertiliser of doubt, of scepticism, of the individual’s right to differ and dissent.
Again, think of the opposite. History without chronological context is mere storytelling or manipulation. History without regard to its subjectiveness and incompleteness is a world of unquestioning reliance on theses from the internet or incomplete intelligence reports. No surprise that New Labour, one of the most history-averse administrations we have known, should have fallen into this trap, and we look in vain for any sign that it even knows it is in it.
Seán Lang is a lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University. He has taught history in secondary schools and sixth form colleges and lectured at university level both in History and in Education. He led the Historical Association’s influential Curriculum Development Project: History 14-19 and recently produced the History Practitioners Advisory Team report on History 11-16 for the shadow education team. He is editor of 20th Century History Review and writes regularly for TES and BBC History Magazine.
1. Khrushchev’s startlingly frank aphorism is much quoted and treasured by historians, who tend to take it as a back-handed compliment to their importance (e.g. DES, 1985), but it is seldom taken in its context. It was spoken to a visiting French delegation in 1956 and, while it undoubtedly highlights a truth the Soviet Union took seriously, the possibility must remain open that the phrase was no more than an example of Khrushchev’s characteristically blunt style of banter.
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Wolfe, B. (1960). ‘The new gospel according to Khrushchev’. Foreign Affairs. July.
"The audience were the stars of the Battle of Ideas - engaged, informed and enthusiastic. As a panellist, I felt both ashamed and educated. Exactly as it should be."
John Street, professor of politics, University of East Anglia