Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Blinkered History

David Aaronovitch has written a commentary, "Potty history" dealing with the call in Britain to make some "History" standards. It is a good intro to what a historian deals with when analyzing events. One must balance the view from the top with the view from the bottom. Aaronovitch, an ideological "lefty" who tends to favor "peoples history," has a good outlook on the value of teaching a shared history
I understand the need for a shared story that both is and isn't history. [Tim} Collins's speech also included this rather good passage: 'We cannot be surprised that some within the next generation do not value our parliamentary democracy if they know nothing of the English civil war, do not vote if they are not taught about the struggles to widen the franchise, and do not value any authority figures if they are not told the inspiring tales of the national heroes of our past.'

But such an approach also has dangers. Palestinian schoolchildren are not taught about the extermination of the Jews. The decision has been made, I imagine, that this story would be obliterating. It would over-shadow their own national myth and make the sudden disaster that befell them in 1948/9 seem somehow understandable. The result of this omission is, and can only be, a complete failure to comprehend what has happened. I imagine that Israeli education similarly denies the real experience of the Palestinian Arabs.

We could easily make the same mistake here. Mr Collins is asking the historian Andrew Roberts to draw up a prospectus for what children should know about British history. It seems to me that this remit is too narrow.

However bad it may be not to know what Nelson's ship was called, isn't it infinitely worse that virtually nobody in Britain would be able to correctly answer the question, 'After the Soviet Union, which country lost the most citizens in the Second World War?' It was China. The same China which is, at long last, beginning its rise to world prominence. So what will be more important for every schoolboy to know about: Trafalgar or the Cultural Revolution? Zaì-jiàn.
Again, it must be remembered that he is talking about Britain, but the warning is worth remembering. However, I must confess that I think that what can be taken from this is that History is a balancing act. Youth are best served if their historical instruction is in the form of a holistic narrative, as opposed to an ideological one. One can raise up heroes of all classes, both soldiers and diplomats, farmers and soldiers, without denigrating any of them.

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