Yes, I do agree narrative is the lifeblood of good history teaching, and has been ever since Herodotus and those Bible writers who may or may not have been earlier than Herodotus. But anyone who does not go beyond that to examine historiography, the actual nature and method of history and how the past is intellectually constructed, has not yet been educated. Why, they could even end up believing ripping yarns like The Da Vinci Code!
Any fool can find factoids, especially today with Google and so on.
And guess what! Kevin (do visit this) agrees with John Howard! Hardly surprising that, is it? Kevin is the author of what I described on reading it as the worst and silliest book I read on education in forty years of teaching. John loves him. My view of the book has not changed. Is Kevin the Paris Hilton of the educational world? Or am I just being grumpy?
Mr Donnelly argues the relativist approach, in which no single perspective dominates, is inherently contradictory. On the one hand curriculum documents point to the subjectivity of historical understanding, while on the other mandating approaches such as feminism and environmentalism as templates for students’ understanding.
I shudder at the “single perspective” prescription: Kevin could become a history teacher in China with an attitude like this. And the rest of what he says is actually very confused, or very badly reported, though whatever one thinks of Imre Salusinszky — he at least drafted this article (additional reporting: Andrew McGarry, Ean Higgins, Lisa Macnamara) — he is usually cogent at least. So maybe Kevin’s confusion has been accurately transmitted. You see, there is no contradiction between recognising the inevitable subjectivity of history-writing, where one makes choices about what one thinks is significant (not the same, by the way, as deliberately falsifying or inventing the past) and consideration of some of the matrices through which people may make such choices.
Episode 2 of Race: The Power of an Illusion was in fact a good example of the usefulness of studying the way ideas that seem “natural” are in fact constructs, and the value of seeing familiar events from changed perspectives. Exactly what Donnelly and others who fear the modern, such as fundamentalists, can never come to terms with. They see anything outside THEIR perspective as rampant relativism and anarchy. It just isn’t healthy to think that way, and reduces history to trivia, or propaganda of one kind or another.
Or another example. You know from my Books and Ideas blog that I actually admire Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: the Unknown Story, a taste I unfortunately share with Keith Windschuttle, whom I do not admire. I am of course aware that Chang and Halliday have not given us THE truth, but they have opened up truths that other perspectives lead people to gloss over, and they have questioned received views quite properly. It is all part of the ongoing dialectic of historiography, a dance, if you like, a process.
So, this much said, what sort of attitude do we need to have when studying history? Well, the first thing is that you should not enter a history class–any history class–looking for answers. The study of history reveals that there is no clear cut answer for anything. Since understanding history is based on individual–and therefore subjective–interpretation, you must decide for yourself what kind of meaning you will attach to the topic. Go into history with an open mind. Don’t expect the answer to be presented to you as if written in stone. It’s not. History is not a science–it’s a form of literature and the historian is little more than a writer of non-fiction.
See Steven Kreis, The History Guide.
Yes, you can be more or less honest with your handling of sources, more or less insightful in your discernment of cause and effect or patterns, but the only way to escape subjectivity is to cease to be human. And the most dangerous perspective of the lot is the one that does not acknowledge itself as one among many, or even worse does not see itself as a perspective at all.
Pluralism is part of living on this particular planet. Get used to it.
And today I added Experimental history won’t change the Battle of Hastings – Opinion – smh.com.au, a great article by Professor Stephen Muecke from UTS.
I have also revised, though not too substantially, my own contribution to Australian history: my family history entries. On Sunday afternoon I shared these pages with PK over a beer or two; he loved them, but reading the hard copy I was embarrassed to find some typos and other glitches, which I hope I have fixed. I have also expanded the evidence in one section.