Friday, 1 February 2008

Where's History going?

Maria Grever and Siep Stuurman (eds.)

Beyond the Canon: History for the Twenty-First Century

(Palgrave, 2007)

222pp., £45 hard, ISBN 978-0-230-51650-2

Why is government throughout the Western World increasingly concerned about national identity and the transmission of historical knowledge? The answer perhaps lies in the increasingly fluid world in which we live where substantial population migration appears to be the norm and where ‘our’ history is no longer accepted with the same quietism that was the case a generation ago. Defining who were are and what our history is used to be relatively straightforward; in many respects the early attempts to produce a National Curriculum reflected, though not without disagreement, what the ‘great and the good’ saw as important in our history. That certainly no longer exists as we now try to come to terms with our past, a process that had parallels in Germany, the United States, the Netherlands, France, South Africa and Canada. Take, for example, the debate over the slave trade and whether the government should apologise for this. Is it possible to apologise to people long dead and should one apologise to their descendents? Are we applying today’s moral imperatives to the past and is that, in fact desirable? The slave trade, for all its barbarity, existed and apologising now for events two hundred years ago and more seems to me a token but then perhaps it is a necessary token.

I remember a discussion with year nine students on the slave trade where we looked at its morality. Those who did not really think about the issue quickly concluded that we should apologise because slavery was wrong, a moral judgement without doubt but perhaps not a historical one. However, those who thought more deeply about the issue began to ask the sorts of questions that politicians ought to be asking before reaching heavily-spun and simplistic conclusions. Why did some people in 1780 believe that slavery was morally right? Would we have supported the slave trade in the eighteenth century? The students split on the issue with some arguing that if they were merchants and wanted to make a good profit they probably would have traded in slaves. Would we support slavery today? No contest, of course not. As one student, not the brightest in the ground, said, it all depends on the context.

Our historical identity demands a clear historical context and narrative. The problem is that in a world of flux neither the context nor the narrative are as clear as they once were. I had thought that Butterfield buried Whig approach to history but it seems not; it has undergone a dramatic revival enhanced by the historical application of political correctness. So has history come down to relativism? Has it become yet another too of government?

These issues form an important theme in an excellent collection of fourteen papers that consider old canons and new histories. Part 1 considers the framing of historical knowledge and contains an excellent paper by Peter Lee on the issue of historical literacy. Part 2 looks at the foundations and revisions of the Western Canon considering issues such as the Enlightenment as a possible canon for modernity, citizenship and the crisis in the Humanities, rethinking the nation in historical museums and gender. The final part considers the transmission of historical knowledge in multicultural settings including a powerful chapter on slavery. This is an important book for history teachers since it places some of the issues that are raised in the classroom and by revisions to the history curriculum in a global context. If it is true that every generation rewrites the history of the previous generation, then the message for history teachers in Britain is that you are not alone in your concerns.

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