The end of history?


The first History Festival of Ireland is on this weekend. We have to understand the past to avoid old mistakes, according
to CATRIONA CROWE. But can ‘history’ ever be more than myths and misunderstandings, asks MANCHÁN MAGAN

THE INAUGURAL History Festival of Ireland, which takes place in Carlow this weekend, will no doubt further strengthen our current obsession with the past, but no matter how distinguished the speakers, who include Diarmaid Ferriter, David Norris, Myles Dungan, Kevin Myers and Ruth Dudley Edwards, they cannot distract from Henry Ford’s central truth that “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”

History is Coronation Street for the intellectual mind. It is no more or less relevant, nor enlightening, than any other well-told tale. There is an attraction to a beguiling mythology that helps us feel more comfortable with our place in the world, but it oughtn’t to be mistaken for truth.

Even the most fanatical historian would not try to claim that history is objective or comprehensive. It is a miasma of agendas, myths, fallacies and misunderstanding fudged together to create a simplistic log of our existence, a convenient narrative of past events as interpreted by any historian; just as Liveline and this newspaper are interpretations of tiny fragments of reality through different prisms. No serious historian would argue that the records and chronicles on which history is based are dependable, yet each subjectively chooses from these very sources, which are really only tiny candles illuminating the infinite darkness.

The survival of historical data is due to happenstance or, more likely, a decision by someone in the past to influence a future view of previous events. It is further tainted by the bias of the collector and, later, the archivist. We invariably encounter it out of context, and thus what emerges is a historical narrative that is tenuous and somewhat fictitious yet becomes, unfathomably, accepted by the public as fact.

The reason for this, I think, is our innate love of story. History makes for ideal fiction: tales of scandal, heroism, treachery, dashing deeds and double-crossing intrigue. But as GB Shaw said, “The only thing that we learn from history is that man can never learn anything from history.” Why do historians so rarely address this issue in public? They expend so much of their energy squabbling back and forth in academic journals, desperately searching for footholds on the teetering human pyramid of their discipline, that they never dare stop to challenge its inherent platitudes and pretensions, or even its basic veracity.

The best way of understanding its inherent unreliability is to look back at your own family. Most of us have a narrative about our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, with letters, photographs and first-person accounts to back it up. But imagine the vast realms of knowledge about our parents that we cannot ever know, or the even wider swathes of knowledge about our grandparents. We focus on what we have and join up the dots to form a tenuous story.

As Howard Zinn, the pioneering champion of “honest” history and author of A People’s History of the United States, says, “The basic problem of traditional history books is that they’re nationalistic and they’re elitist. By nationalistic, I mean they look upon the world centered around us and they look upon American policy as benign.”

The elitism of history is perfectly illustrated in its complete focus on men, virtually obliterating female experiences and outlooks, and the nationalistic bent is well reflected in the way history claims the Americans as victors at the Alamo, ignoring the successes of the Mexicans. And Columbas’s arrival in the New World in 1492 eclipsed all other major events of that period, warping the truth of everything that happened contemporaneously on an entire continent.

As pleasant distractions, Coronation Street or history shouldn’t be attacked: except that history is harmful. It constrains us, confining us to limited old-pattern thinking and a narrow fixation on the unhelpful duality of winners and losers.

The Arab Spring and the fall of the Berlin Wall could not have been predicted by history. They were examples of human beings daring to unyoke themselves from the burden of the past and dreaming new futures. Only in the past 150 years have humans shown dependable signs of being able to live in a somewhat enlightened capacity, in which the majority are not enslaved by oppressive systems or straitjacketed by narrow cultural confines. This is a time where we can make a great leap forward to reimagine how we may all exist harmoniously and sustainably on the planet, and historians, with their obsessive compulsion to pick at irrelevant old factoids like itchy monkeys digging out their lice, are getting in the way.

We need to re-create our world anew and lead the chroniclers of our unenlightened past back into the shadows where they belong.

Manchán Magan is a writer and broadcaster

‘THOSE WHO cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana’s injunction against amnesia is so frequently quoted in defence of history that it is almost a cliche, but it is still apposite after a spectacularly violent 20th century, particularly in Ireland. The quality and quantity of the history taught in our schools are matters for debate because the National Council for Curriculum and Asessment (NCCA) has proposed a new curriculum for Junior Cert students that would remove history as a compulsory core subject.

There are genuine and legitimate concerns about the levels of literacy and numeracy being achieved in our second-level schools, and the NCCA proposals rightly place these basic skills at the centre of the curriculum. However, moving history into an optional space is likely to have a disastrous effect on its availability to students; in battles for points, discursive disciplines such as history tend to take second place. Many of the NCCA proposals are excellent, emphasising practical living and cognitive skills, but I believe removing history from the core is a mistake.

Eric Hobsbawm, the British Marxist historian, said: “The destruction of the past or, rather, of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late 20th century. Most young men and women at the century’s end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in.” Without good history teaching and learning up to young adulthood there is no shared idea of a public past.

While Ireland’s shared ideas about our public past have been bedevilled by a lack of primary sources – although that situation is improving all the time – and by strong political motivations, at least people had points from which to begin an argument. A discussion about whether Michael Collins or Éamon de Valera was our greatest leader might be mired in inherited bias, bad biography or undue influence from Neil Jordan, but it is better than not knowing who either of them was, or that we had a civil war at the foundation of our State.

We have a lot of excellent history progamming on radio and TV. The History Show on RTÉ Radio 1 delivers absorbing information, as does Newstalk’s Talking History, and The Tenements on TV3 shed light on our urban social history and began a discussion about life in Dublin.

Britain is currently engaged in a debate about history in the curriculum, with historians such as Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson, Tristram Hunt and Robert Tombs engaging in public discussion about its importance and the best ways to teach it. History is compulsory only to the age of 14 in Britain, and proponents of change argue for its retention to GCSE or even A-level. The debate has touched on issues such as national identity, multiculturalism, understanding of colonialism, global history and labour, gender and women’s history. It looks as if Michael Gove, the British education secretary, might reinstate history as a compulsory subject to GCSE level, just as we are considering removing it.

In Ireland, the History Teachers’ Association has taken a lead in fighting for the subject, and has met Minister for Education and Skills Ruairi Quinn to present the argument (see The Minister has not yet decided on the status of history in the revised curriculum, so there is still time for a wider public debate about this very important issue.

Shat skills do we learn from the study of history? Secondary students have used the online 1911 census to engage with primary sources, a requirement of the relatively new Leaving Certificate history curriculum. They can use the forms to reconstruct a street in their town or village, and add to the documentary evidence with local knowledge. This kind of exercise teaches useful skills, including judicious evaluation of evidence, tolerance of diverse people living in one place, understanding of how communities change over time, compassion – for example, high levels of child mortality are evident from the census – and knowledge that not all questions can be answered.

These are skills for living as responsible citizens, as well as the basis for employment in all kinds of spheres; for example law, journalism, sociology, the caring professions and any occupation that involves dealing and communicating effectively with people. Instead of removing history from the junior cycle, the Government should make it compulsory up to the end of secondary schooling. If ever a country needed to teach history to its children it is Ireland, with our troubled violent past, both distant and recent, and our capacity, shared with other countries, to forget events from which we might learn something useful, and thus avoid repeating our mistakes.

Catriona Crowe is head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland

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