This is pretty much what I was trying to say yesterday about history, except that Stephen Muecke, being smarter than I am, says it better.
THE smouldering embers of the culture wars have been stirred again, this time by the Prime Minister, John Howard, talking about the teaching of history in schools. He called for the learning of significant dates, like that of the Battle of Hastings, and decried the influence of postmodern relativism…
What of relativism? The way Howard is using the term is to imply there are people who think there is a different truth for everyone and anything. He means to assert that the date of the Battle of Hastings is 1066; that is reality and don’t mess with it.
While Albert Einstein, the physicist who messed with reality with the theory of relativity, cannot be held accountable for the rise of relativistic thought in philosophy and the arts, both relativity and relativism grew in the same atmosphere of 20th-century modernism. This was a great era of experimental thought.
The freedom to experiment with thought is a precious legacy, which is why we should not listen to Howard when he is trying to shut down thinking in this way.
We can experiment with history. This is not to say that the date of the Battle of Hastings is different for different people. If a postmodern relativist can be found, he or she will not dispute the date of the Battle of Hastings, or even dispute the importance of empirical facts. But someone who is prepared to experiment with history, in the great tradition of experimental method (testing a new hypothesis against measurement of data), will be prepared to think relatively rather than absolutely.
This is innovative thinking. It asks “what if?”
This thinking opens up new domains of facts. “What if there were such a thing as women’s history,” someone once asked – and a new subject was born. It is a question of adopting a new perspective, as Henry Reynolds said, as he, too, opened up the new field of Aboriginal history, making him one of the most influential public intellectuals of the last couple of decades.
His critics make him out to be controversial and politically correct. But adding new chapters on Aboriginal history to the Australian story has not had the effect of wiping out Captain Cook, it has simply added something compelling as a story and an argument. Its politics is motivated by justice and inclusion, democratic ideas people generally agree with.
Democracy, by the way, is itself a kind of relativism. It asks “what if women were given the vote?” “Why haven’t indigenous people got full citizenship rights?” In principle, it progressively includes more sectors within the polity, never assuming that things are absolutely all right the way they are.
Reynolds’s new perspective tells us that Australian history did not just begin with Cook or the First Fleet. “What was happening on the other side of the frontier?” he asked. While he was working in the document archives turning up neglected materials on early colonial life, including massacres, archaeologists also came up with facts that added new first chapters to the human history of the continent, uncovering the stories written in the sands of Lake Mungo, and in thousands of camp sites and shell middens.
Historians experimenting with new methods and new technology, like tape recordings, have learned to value and interpret the living traditions of oral history.
Many facts are established, but certainty is never absolute. In the realm of the interpretation of history, arguments have to be made and stories crafted. The tyranny of the fact alone is not only uninspiring for pupils, but smacks of dogma.
This kind of work is not some messy postmodern relativism, but it runs counter to the kind of evangelism of the absolute that those in the Prime Minister’s camp advocate. In thrall to the facts, and reality as we know it, these people, like caricatures of Charles Dickens’s Gradgrind, will stick to their comfort zone and try to put the facts discovered about women’s and Aboriginal history back in the archive basement where they belong.
Children get a contradictory message here. It seems innovation and experimental method belong only in the sciences. In the cultural world, on the other hand, conservatism is much safer.
“Evangelism of the absolute” — I like that phrase.