Saturday, January 22, 2005

The State of History

The historian Eric Hobsbawm has surveyed the field of history and doesn't like what he sees. After detailing what has occurred in the field, he arrives at where it stands now.
Methodologically, the major negative development has been the construction of a set of barriers between what happened in history and our capacity to observe and understand it. It is denied that there is any reality that is objectively there and not constructed by the observer for different and changing purposes. It is claimed that we can never penetrate beyond the limitations of language.

Meanwhile, less theoretically minded historians argue that the course of the past is too contingent for causal explanation, because the options in history are endless. Pretty well anything could happen or might have happened. Implicitly, these are arguments against any science. I won't bother about the more trivial attempts to return to the past: the attempt to hand back its course to high political or military decision-makers, or to the omnipotence of ideas or "values", or to reduce historical scholarship to the search for empathy with the past.

The major immediate political danger to historiography today is "anti-universalism" or "my truth is as valid as yours, whatever the evidence". This appeals to various forms of identity group history, for which the central issue of history is not what happened, but how it concerns the members of a particular group. What is important to this kind of history is not rational explanation but "meaning", not what happened but what members of a collective group defining itself against outsiders - religious, ethnic, national, by gender, or lifestyle - feel about it.
Hobsbawm, himself a member of the Marxist school of historical thought (btw, that doesn't necesarily mean "communist" in the field of history), believes a new method relying on Marxist methodology and a reliance on science, specifically new findings involving DNA. There are some who have challenged Howbsbawn, claiming he is attacking "Straw Men."

On a more practical note, Frank Furedi tackles on teaching history properly (at least in Britain).
Talk to any group of seven to 11-year-olds. Many have spent a term working on a history project. Some know a wealth of detail about the Great Fire of London. Others have studied the Tudors and can confidently tell you the names of Henry VIII's wives. Some can recount fascinating snippets of information regarding the Vikings while others show off their knowledge of Roman Britain. But ask which of these events came first and they are in trouble.

Why? Because history is taught as a series of unconnected experiences – as discrete self-contained stories with no timeline. Thus are schoolchildren deprived of a clear framework on which events can be hung, gain in meaning and become part of a wider pattern. Such slipshod standards only worsen a climate in which history is regarded, at best, as an irrelevant indulgence.
Well, I've encountered this to a slight degree on the Graduate level, but then again, by this point most students should have dates, or at least broader periods, properly placed on their own internal timelines. I have to admit, recalling my engineering education, the real concentration was not in memorizing formulas but in knowing how to look them up and then how to use them.

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