Thursday 4 July 2013

It Ain't Necessarily So - by Katherine Langrish

While Government education ministers moan about the history curriculum in English schools, I shake my head.  There is no way, no way at all, to fit the whole of British history into two or three lessons a week over the course of a few brief school years, so obviously stuff has to be left out, and the question: what? is highly political.

In my own youth it used to be the case that ‘school history’ ignored the Roman conquest, skipped the Dark Ages and the early English kings, even Alfred, and began with the Norman conquest in 1066. This was presented as ‘the last time a foreign army ever conquered England’ but also as the event which created ‘the language of Shakespeare’ and therefore, as Messrs. Sellar and Yeatman would say, A Good Thing.

Our history lessons then hopped several centuries to the Wars of the Roses in the late 1400’s, dwelt adoringly on the Tudors (especially Elizabeth the First, and the failure of the Spanish Armada: another Good Thing); did a little swift footwork over the Stuarts and the Civil War (leaving us with the impression that the Stuarts were a bit flaky but after all they were really only Scottish/French, weren’t they, and practically foreigners?), hurdled the next couple of centuries (we knew nothing of Queen Anne, for instance) to arrive breathless and panting at the Napoleonic Wars (Waterloo, Trafalgar: Britain in her habitual role of Holding the Tyrant at Bay). 

After this, apparently nothing of much note occurred before the Industrial Revolution (a Good Thing because it made Britain Richest Nation and Top World Power): the downside of which in terms of human suffering was redeemed by heroic reformers like Fry, Wilberforce and Shaftesbury (English People with Moral Principles who Improved Lives). Our history lessons finally drew to a close in the mud of Flanders: the First World War was too close and terrible to be airbrushed in any way; my generation all had granddads who had survived it or died in it. And the Second World War wasn’t history at all, but something which belonged to your mother’s childhood, and she could tell you stories about it – dashing down to the air raid shelter with the cat – shivering to the explosion of the bomb that missed – listening to Churchill on the radio.

And so, albeit with several lacunae, schoolchildren of my era did get a general sense of the progression of British history – a sense of the order into which the different portions fell.

This is useful.  But it is not the only important, nor even the most important thing. For every version of history written by the victors, a different version is remembered by the victims; and when – as often happens – victors and victims switch places, their historical narratives switcharoo, till a single set of historical events may yield two opposing storylines that snake across each other’s paths like sine and cosine waves, intersecting at a few bare points of reference.
Henry VIII

Hence the Catholic view of the English Reformation goes like this: Because monstrous Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife he broke with Rome, dissolved the monasteries, turned nuns and monks into beggars and led England away from the true path.  Queen Mary I briefly restored the Catholic faith, till England reverted to Protestantism under Elizabeth I. The Catholic persecution was renewed and continued for centuries (not until this year, 2013, was the constitution amended to allow the monarch to marry a Catholic). Over 300 English Catholics were martyred (hanged, drawn and quartered) between 1534 to 1680.

But the Protestant view of the Reformation goes this way: Henry VIII merely hurried the English Reformation along: it was inevitable, ever since Martin Luther and the unforgettably named Diet of Worms.  It’s a bit embarrassing Henry was such a monster, but the Reformation was still a good thing.  Of course you shouldn’t be encouraged to pay money to the Church to buy God’s forgiveness!  Of course people should have access to the Bible in English!  Under Bloody Mary (Queen Mary I) over 300 English Protestants were martyred (burned at the stake) between 1554 and 1558. And what about Catholic plots against Elizabeth I?

I was brought up on the Protestant narrative, the Official Version in state education and in my own home.  I went to a perfectly ordinary rural grammar school where there were few Catholics, fewer Jews, and absolutely no Muslims.  I was therefore astonished at age eighteen, in the course of a conversation with a new friend who happened to be a Roman Catholic nun, when she quietly remarked, “The Reformation was the worst thing that ever happened to England.”

I was utterly taken aback. Not once in my life had it occurred to me that anyone might question the view expressed in every history book (fictional or non-fictional) I’d ever read, that the Reformation was not only A Good Thing, but A Very Good Thing. It paved the way for Elizabeth the First, didn’t it – Gloriana herself?  And dim recollections of simony and the selling of indulgences, mixed up with memories of carousing friars and false prelates from stories about Robin Hood, had led me to take for granted that the late medieval Catholic Church had been sadly lacking in moral fibre.

Many years on, I still wouldn’t actually agree that the Reformation was the worst thing ever to happen to England, but my views on it are more nuanced, and at least I know it’s possible to have the argument.  Much more important, however, was my belated realisation that what you read in a history book ain’t necessarily so.

Robert Bellah, in his interesting book  "Religion in Human Evolution" (Harvard 2011) writes:

Families, nations, religions (but also corporations, universities, departments of sociology) know who they are by the stories they tell. The modern discipline of history is closely related to the emergence of the nation-state. Families and religions have seldom been concerned with 'scientific accuracy' in the stories they tell. Modern nations have required national histories that will be, in a claimed objective sense, true. ...But the narrative shape of national history is not more scientific (or less mythical) than the narrative shape of other identity tellings, something that it does not take debunkers to notice. Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities recounts both the widespread establishment of chairs of history within a generation of the French Revolution and its unleashing of nationalist fervour, and of the strange mix of memory and forgetting that that history produced (not so strange to those familiar with other forms of self-telling). [My italics]

Ignatius Sancho
The narrative of British history taught to me in school was concerned with aggrandisement of Britain as a nation and the British as a race - with a fairly narrow definition of race. It's good to feel good about yourself, but not if it encourages blindness, ignorance and prejudice about your neighbours, local and international. For example, there have been black inhabitants of these islands since at least Roman times, but we were never told anything about that in my schooldays. They were invisible. Including them in the history curriculum was a step not merely towards a new and better national narrative, but also towards a more accurate one. It's got to make it harder to view black British people as foreigners, newcomers and interlopers if you've been taught about black Elizabethans like the trumpet player John Blanke, black Georgians and Victorians like the writer Ignatius Sancho and the composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor, black First World War soldiers... No wonder there was an outcry when Michael Gove tried to remove Mary Seacole from our children's history lessons.

In my daughters’ time in school, during the last decade, I’ve been pleased that the history they have learned was very differently taught from the rather odd mixture of rote learning and essays which constituted my history lessons (the battle plans and dates of Napoleon's campaigns have long faded from my memory: but I enjoyed writing short imaginative essays about how it might feel to be sent down a mine at age seven.)  They've been constantly asked to pay attention to the sources. They’ve been shown the difference between primary and secondary sources and asked to evaluate the trustworthiness of each.  They’ve been taught to think carefully, not just about what was said to have happened, but also about who was saying it, and why, and whether this person might be in any way biased.  Suppose Henry VIII had written a personal account of his break from Rome. It would be an important primary source: but you wouldn’t take it at face value, would you?  

Rote learning of facts and dates is far less important than the skills my daughters learned in history, skills which will serve them well in life.  Especially in an age when you can look up facts and dates on the internet (which may not be accurate), it’s good to think for yourself.  It’s good to have an enquiring mind.  It’s good to retain a healthy suspicion of people with axes to grind. Above all, it’s good to know that you shouldn’t believe everything you read.  Just because it’s in a book – or available online – doesn’t make it true.

Who wrote that book or that blog?  And for what purpose?  Is the author telling the truth?

It ain’t necessarily so.


Cover illustration by John Reynolds of '1066 And All That' by Sellar and Yeatman - published by Methuen

Henry VIII, in the Royal Collection:

Ignatius Sancho: portrait by Thomas Gainsborough:

: 'It Ain't Necessarily So' from George Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess', Trevor Nunn, 2006 (Youtube)


adele said...

What a terrific post, Kath! Marvellous...and re Reformation etc, there are some who won't even read Hilary Mantel because her picture of Thomas Cromwell is at odds with theirs. If you read CJSansom, Cromwell is a it goes.

Candy Gourlay said...

Really enjoyed this post. Especially as someone from a country with a history that needs more telling.

Austin said...

Thanks for a very good post.

I agree with you that the critical thinking skills that your children were encouraged to bring to the study of history are extremely valuable.

At the same time, I do think that some overriding sense of the broad sweep of human history is an important perspective. I am privileged not to have needed to send my children to school. So, we have been able to undertake a chronological journey through history starting with the evolution of the first recognisable humans on the planet; taking a global, multi-viewpoint perspective as well as examining our own national narrative. We have also been able to look through a constellation of lenses including political,economic, social and cultural. We have had the pleasure of many site visits across Europe and days exploring libraries, museums, archaeological sites and so on. We have debated and thought critically and come to all manner of conclusions by our own efforts. In school, I can't see how that could ever be possible. In which case, at least teaching a critical and analytic approach to history is surely the right priority.

One thing that has come out of our studies is the realisation that history is more akin to storytelling than it is to science. It is more like sitting down with a tarot pack and inventing plausible connections and narratives than it is compiling data on the behaviour of dependent and independent variables in a controlled experiment.

All history is theoretical. And all of this theorizing (which continues unabated, with a new book out almost every month) is of course undertaken with the benefit of hindsight. If hindsight was, as the saying goes, an exact science, then we would most likely have bashed out a common, universal narrative by now - as we have done for biological evolution, say. But it is not.

All these explanatory narratives - protestant and catholic to use your examples - are at the theoretical level, plausible. They are also mutually contradictory. And they have all been invented after the fact.

History is not science. Or if it is, it is a very inexact one.

What does this mean for us if we want to teach history? Is history really anything more than fiction, or like a Hollywood movie so loosely 'based on a true story' that the people who had been involved in the real events would no longer recognize even themselves?

History is most often identified as being 'important' because in some way it enables us to understand not only where we are now in terms of some conception of a forward, progressive movement over time but also to attempt predictions of the future direction we may be taking.

The implications of the 'history as cultural fiction' however, are powerful. If we cannot understand the factual past, then we cannot predict the future.

Historians of all ages have thought themselves able to see clear and reasonable patterns emerging in the course of human history and thus to confidently predict future trends and events. And historians of all ages have been proved wrong time and time again.

Historians must, of course, continue to create narratives of the past. It's good for us. It gives us some sense of solid ground on which we might stand. It is terribly important, however, that we acknowledge history as a form of cultural story-telling more akin to mythology than to scientific, descriptive writing. It is not time-travel. It reflects back to us how we variously think and feel about the past, rather than explaining why those events occurred.


Austin said...


In certain fields, although by no means all, science has proven itself capable of reliably predicting specific kinds of events (how one chemical will react with another, for example). But not everything is amenable to scientific methods of prediction. However, what can't be predicted scientifically, can't be predicted at all.

Future history is in that latter category. You can't do history forwards. The past does not provide us with a crystal ball in which to see the future.

And so, if the teaching of history as a narrative is the teaching of a cultural myth, a fiction, and the understanding of history as a way of determining possible futures is a fallacy, what are we left with to teach?

I think we are left with teaching the cultural myths not as we were taught (one narrowly political myth as fact) but the many myths as a way of understanding the human endeavour, in a global context, even in the context of the wider ecological environment in which our history is embedded.

To do that, requires a 'renaissance' approach: multidisciplinary, critical and creative.

I'm glad they are teaching critical approaches to history in schools these days. It may be the best they can do commissioned with what must be - by simple practical limitations of numbers of pupils, time and resources - an impossible task.

Sue Purkiss said...

Hope Michael Gove reads this post and these comments!

Anonymous said...

I remember being amazed when I took a peek at the proposed new NC for History the other day. Most primaries I know you get maybe an hour per week for History, tops. Stick in maybe one extra hour a week in secondaries to KS3 and you're seriously supposed to do full justice to those centuries of people and events in just those sessions?

I can understand getting away from learning History in themes, and I get the idea of learning chronologically what happened when, but the overwhelming feeling I got from reading the NC through was that everything revolves around England. Even global History needs to be linked back to English History - not even British History, ENGLISH.

I think the one thing that really NEEDS to be included in History lessons (correct me if it already is) is the concept of forgotten or missing histories. For exmaple, some women's history, or BEM history - I was in the same boat as you and had to wait until University before I suddenly found out that England had a slave trade. Before that, I'd only ever encountered the history of the slave trade in English lessons, and that was in reference to the American slave trade not the English. If you're going to study English history, not only should it include the nastier bits like the slave trade, but it should also be a golden opportunity to teach the concept (like you said) of untrustworthy sources and the fact that some histories are harder to find, and the reasons for that.

I did see someone say on a news wesbite (sorry, memory's gone)that History should be personal to students - which I absolutely disagree with. If you are to study History, you need to do it objectively and you cannot do that if the NC is being touted as personal to you.

A very thorough post - if you don't mind, I'd like to link to it if I ever get round to blogging about this topic from my soapbox :))

Anonymous said...

Even global History needs to be linked back to English History - not even British History, ENGLISH.

Sorry, that didn't come across quite as sarcastic as I would have liked!You're quite right when you say that aggrandisement of your country can be a good thing, in the way that feeling good about yourself can be. You're also absolutely right when you say that it can lead to a very narrow viewpoint, and I can't help feeling that if the History curriculum centres solely round English History and how World History impacted on it (which is the impression I'm getting), the NC will end up doing it's studentds a disservice. I mean, how can you work in a multinational world if you see everything through your own culture and viewpoint and aren't used to seeing it from a different angle (like the Reformation and the nun you mentioned).

Brilliant post - got me all chatty!

Sue Bursztynski said...

When I was in my later years of high school, we had a teacher who started us off on the concept of,"who is this historian and what's in it for him?" After that, I thought carefully.

I live in Australia. We were brought up with the history of noble settlers and who "discovered" where, plus, of course, the convicts. Nothing about "terra nullius" or massacres of indigenous people or their lack of rights. Only a few years ago, we had a prime minister who objected to what he called the "black armband" view of history. He wanted the noble settlers and explorers back.

It's quite true that "history" depends on viewpoint. And not only history. Just look at any two newspapers' account of the same event, depending on whether they're left or right biased!

liz read said...

Smack on! Also UK education in days of yore and acquired attitudes were to be cautious of Roman Catholics and as for Jews, I didn't even know what they were. There was one at my boarding school and we just envied her since she didn't have to go to church on Sundays! And as for that association of Jews with the crucifiction, we thankfully were taught it was Herod's fault. Once out of boarding school in real life I caught up fast and was then stunned at the obdurate and unforgiving attitudes that held sway with so many.