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I'm author of The Snipesville Chronicles. I'm also a published academic historian, but don't hold that against me.Oh, and I'm a Brit. I just happen to live in Georgia.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

What’s History? A Random Ramble.

Working on my second children's novel recently, I keep on thinking about a comment from an Amazon customer who praised my first book for reviving her son's interest in reading (hooray!) but who also criticized it for not having as much history in it as she had hoped (Not hooray. Hmm.)

I really, really wish I could ask her for more feedback.

This was an extremely interesting comment, because I hadn't heard it before from anyone, not even the three academic historians, other than myself, who read the book in draft. I asked one of those historians, what to make of it. Without being unkind or patronizing, I promise, she said "Oh, she doesn't understand what history is."

That's the sort of comment that understandably rankles people, so let me explain.

We often use the word "history" generically. We use it to mean "the past."

A building becomes "historical" by virtue of its age, regardless of whether it is genuinely of interest in terms of architecture, social history, or political history.

Even the most tedious chronicler of the past can dub himself a historian without being challenged, so that very, very boring and/or unrepresentative people and books become the public face of history.

In too many high schools and, I'm ashamed to say, in all too many colleges, what we call "history" classes are really exercises in one damn thing after another, in which students are fed and tested on random factoids, without rhyme or reason.

Why does this matter? It matters because history is not the past, but interpretation of the past. History is honesty, not apology. History is critical, not celebratory. History is argument. History is questioning. The word history itself comes not from the blending of "his story" (contrary to the imaginings of 60s feminists who celebrated "herstory"), but from the Greek "historia", which means (roughly) learning through enquiry.

If historians engage constantly in argument with themselves and others, doesn't that imply that they are deliberately manipulating the past?

True, the ethics of professional history do not require absolute objectivity, because that's humanly impossible: We all have our biases and prejudices. But they do require self-examination, and honesty,. Put another way, I am not required as an historian to shed every opinion I may hold (how could I?) but I am required to pursue truth, no matter how unpleasant I may find it. I am required to be willing to revamp or even abandon a thesis when the evidence does not support it.

What's more, I must constantly play devil's advocate, asking myself over and over if I have taken every available bit of contradictory evidence into account.

That's why ideologues don't make good historians.

If I screw up, if I don't deal honestly with the evidence, if I inadvertently interpret it out of context, or if I miss some major body of evidence entirely, I expect to be called to account by peer reviewers before my work goes into print. Our ideas are run up the flagpole at conferences, and tested further in articles and books. Even if we survive the vigorous debate to that point, we expect our work to soon be rendered obsolete: Every idea worth its salt inspires a dozen other scholars or more to rush to the archives on a hunch that it's wrong.

Lecture over. Now, hands up: How many people learned all this about history and historians in high school? Or in college?

That's the problem.

When practically everyone who didn't go to graduate school in history is only taught history in vapid survey courses, a "history" without theses, without argument, without passion, without debate, what is generally understood to be history is indeed one damn thing after another. Without an awareness of the ongoing arguments and the vast publishing output of professional historians, we believe that history is enshrined in textbooks, having been passed down since time immemorial on stone tablets.

I recall attending a lecture given some years ago by the then-head of the American Historical Association, Dr. Joyce Appleby, who said wearily, "People think that when we tell them something different from what they learned in elementary school, we're lying to them." (Not a word for word quote, because it has been a few years, but pretty close.)

Which brings me back (sort of) to my Amazon critic, who (unless she contacts me to clarify, and I really hope she will!) I can only assume meant that my novel was lacking in textbook-type facts.

Normally I don't respond to reviews, because having been trained as a journalist as well as an historian, I am used to criticism and, indeed, genuinely welcome the feedback.

On this occasion, however, I did respond, because it was an opportunity to make sure we were both on the same page. What I emphasized is that history is not just dates and battles, but changing attitudes and values: As a cultural historian, that's my specialty. By bringing three 21st century American kids to mid-20th century England, I had to exercise all my skills of historical imagination, as well as my (imperfect) knowledge of the period, to show how things really do change over time and place. That said, I wasn't trying to write history, but fiction that would ignite kids' interest in history. I wanted, above all, not to sound like a textbook.

I referred this parent to the many entertaining and informative non-fiction books for kid on British childhood during World War II. But I'm still worried that I sounded condescending, then and now. I promise that I don't mean to: The tone is rather of a young woman in a hurry, trying to get out the word to the real public (not just those who read the New York Times) that history is so much more than meets the eye.

Why does all this matter to kids, parents, and democracy?

Stay tuned.


Jon said...

Hardly Random.

History, as developed by the Greeks and as passed down through whole host of cultural influences to us today, is one of the most powerful intellectual tools humans have developed.

2,400 years ago Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War implicitly criticized Homer's explanation that human affairs reflect the conflicts of the Gods. Worse, he explicitly demolished the arguments for military empire in his presentation of the Athenian conflict with Melos. Ever since, History has been dangerous to those in power, dangerous for the entrenched interests of a society. So, there is a struggle to control history, or to dismiss it, or even to destroy it.

One way history has been controlled in our society is to make it a somewhat ridiculous collection of trivial facts. Because details are important to history, historians easily fall into this trap of irrelevance.

Horrible History is a problem because it does not show proper reverence for power and propriety in the past. These books portray properly the "horrible" use of violence in shaping human society, and implicitly asks questions about the behavior of those with power. Of course it is rejected in the US.

Thanks, Annette, for helping kids to see history differently.

Annette Laing said...

Thanks for kind and thoughtful words, Jon!
Of course, being a fellow historian, I still have to challenge...
I don't think the Horrible History series has been challenged much in the U.S. For one thing, the books haven't been seriously marketed here. For another, I don't for a minute think those who would criticize it would make much of an effect on sales. Librarians, parents, teachers, and kids have all been impressed with these books, and I would really like to see them get more air play. BTW, my brother is an elementary school teacher in London, and he hates HHs...but,as he cheerfully admits, kids love them.
I often think that the culture wars are misrepresented, and that there is quite a gulf between the fire-breathing talking heads, and the public. I reckon there's a bit of a gender gap going on here (sorry!): Most of the fire-breathers are guys, while most teachers and primary parents are women. I've had the real pleasure of getting to know many teachers and home-schooling moms over the years, and they have been very enthusiastic supporters of my work, regardless of political affiliation, which is very gratifying. My #1 goal is to help kids enjoy history, and critical thinking comes along with that.