Monday, February 25, 2008

What makes history interesting?

Neil had two rather good posts (here and here) on Australian history, the writing and teaching thereof. This got me musing on what makes history interesting, at least to this reader.

In saying this I am not talking about the formal academic rigorous style history, although I can find this very interesting indeed when I am interested in the topic or the underlying methodology. Rather, my focus is on what makes a good read.

To begin with, it does help to be interested in the subject matter. This has been a problem for me in recent years because I am simply not very interested in much published work. At one stage I felt that if I read one more gender study, one more thing on the White Australia policy, even another story about the valor of Australians in war in comparison to perfidious Albion, I might throw up!

This did and does not stop me becoming interested in particular topics in these areas. I am very interested in social relationships, for example, and here I have found some of the feminist writing interesting and helpful. However, the subject matter of much published Australian history puts me off.

I have a particular problem where the opinions of the writer come to stand as a barrier between me, the story and the evidence. Obviously we all have our own views, they affect the questions we ask and the way we write, but this becomes a real problem when they control the writing. I am quite capable of making up my own mind. I turn off once I have to try to rip through to the underlying material.

Even when not interested in the subject matter, I have been caught by particular history books.

Looking back at these, one feature is clarity in thought, the capacity to hold and express things simply so that I as a naturally fast reader can understand. Beyond this is a simply measure, the capacity to bring the past alive.

I often use the phrase "a far country" to describe the past. The past is alien even when familiar. The best historians, and this is where I classify Geoffrey Blainey as a great historian, have the capacity to break through this veil.

This, to my mind, is where the teaching of Australian history has failed. There have been too many agendas over too long a period. In all this, our past with its variety and fascination has become lost.

I compare my youngest's love of ancient history with her attitudes to Australian history. Yes, the fascination of the different is powerful. But it is, I think, much more than this.

You can study ancient history without explicit agendas. There is politics, there is conflict, there is sex, war. There are disasters. And in all this, you have ordinary people simply trying to survive.

In studying ancient history you do not have to make value judgements, although this is inevitable. Instead, you can just look at the history. By contrast, Australia's past too often has to be studied through the perceptions of the present.

I do not have an answer to this.

Quite a bit of the history I do write is caught in the same trap, use of the past in the context of current discussions. Yet the Australian history that I most enjoy is history written in some ways independent of the present, history focused on a period or theme that brings an element of the past alive.

Take the importance that Geoffrey Blainey placed on moonlight.

While I can remember the vast night skies before human lights damped them down, I had never thought of the moonlight issue. Yet as Blainey wrote, I remembered the Australian bush with its moonlight so bright that you could travel safely at night.

If we really want our children to understand and love the Australian past, then that past has to become a subject of interest, not one for compulsory study.

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