Monday, September 30, 2013

Monday Forum: marcellous on history

Marcellous made a long comment on History, history wars and the wonder of the on-line world that I thought was worth bringing up in full as a contribution to discussion. Think of it as a guest post! I haven't commented at this stage to prevent my own views interfering with reaction.

Marcellous wrote:

This is very rough, but I'd say "history" really exists on three levels.

The first is, broadly, cultural general knowledge. Necessary for a liberal education, also for consideration of political and economic questions where analogies or lessons are drawn from history. This carries with a the lesson, on numerous levels, that the past is a foreign country.

The second is a "civics" strand. It is an open question whether that is first or second. In a way that is a subset of the cultural general knowledge, but it is the bit where the state cares to get involved in its own interests.

You need some things for both. I was shocked recently in China when my language tutor, a young research student in a humanities subject, clearly had no idea when the Ming dynasty yielded to the Qing (not, incidentally, the Quing, as I recently heard Brendan Nelson call it at the National Press Club).

Arguments about the school syllabus, I think, mostly swirl around these two, especially when we are talking about the bit of the syllabus which will be compulsory. (History as an elective is in severe decline in high schools these days.)

The civics is the bit where either selection or the slant of analysis (explicit or implicit) becomes a political argument.

Of course there is an intersection between the two. If you teach the industrial revolution, what else do you want to say about unions, the combination acts, child labour laws, labour law generally,....oh no! the rise of the labour parties in the UK and Australia as the political advocates for the organised working class! Propaganda! (We could also do Madame Bovary and the money lending acts as well, I suppose; or the "English", "Glorious" and French revolutions.) Under the present Federal government such revolutionary talk should probably stop at 1830.)

Both of these over all tend to be, at least at first, a question of facts and conclusions. They can be populated by ripping yarns such as the version of the Punic Wars you give (though don't you think there is a bit of a subtext about the Pax Romana and the Pax Americana lurking beneath this?). Or it could be (as I remember learning in agonising detail) the history of the reform of the voting franchise in the UK in the nineteenth century up to universal adult suffrage.

The third aspect of history is probably the subject rather than the subject matter: a diachronic analysis (otherwise it is historical geography) of change over time - however analytically or narratively constructed, where the key intellectual disciplines are the use and marshalling of evidence to tell the story/give the analysis. This only really enters the picture in senior high school (to a point) and after.

Ancient history is more fun because even now the sources are more sparse so you can exercise more imagination joining the dots. I still remember a thrill in Medieval History studying (I think) Arnold of Brescia when I realised that I could read (albeit in translation and with less knowledge of the context) practically all of the source available to anyone. The closer you get to now, the more that freedom is circumscribed by how many more sources/facts/artefacts are available - not that I would say (as you do) that it makes things dogmatic."


I brought marcellous's comment up as a post because of the reflections it triggered.

To begin with, we need to distinguish between history and historiography, the writing of history. In a way, history just is, the story of the past waiting to be discovered. Historiography is very different, for what we chose to write about and the way we write about it is always based on and influenced by the present, including our own short pasts. What we think of as history is therefore always selective, changing.

We also need to distinguish between history and historical method. We may chose our topics, but how we approach those topics, the techniques we use to analyse the evidence, is a different matter. Here there is a a body of professional knowledge, of technique, that should be applied. The habit of some, especially French intellectuals such as  Michael Foucault and his disciples, of squeezing, forcing, history to support their models may sometimes have yielded insights, but I never though of it as history because it breached what I saw as the fundamental canons of historical method. I also found it quite indigestible, at times eye-glazingly so. 

A key feature of good history is that it must be refutable. I like and write what marcellous called a diachronic analysis of change over time, however analytically or narratively constructed, where the key intellectual disciplines are the use and marshalling of evidence to tell the story/give the analysis.

In writing, I am very conscious of my own selectivity. I select and present evidence in a way that makes sense, at least to me, that allows me to tell a story. However, that story is not what actually happened, but my own perception at a point as to what happened. I am creating patterns and relationships that feel right to me. However, I know from my own life experience just how messy and complex reality is.

Everything that I write and say, the simplifications that I make, is likely to be wrong to some degree. Part of my role as an historian is to make my sources and analytical processes transparent enough to allow proper challenge, Of course I don't do this all the time. In writing my weekly history column for the Armidale Express, for example, I want to interest and tell a story. I am not going to load that with all the paraphernalia that goes with more professional writing.

Marcellous referred to civics. This, he suggested, is the bit where either selection or the slant of analysis (explicit or implicit) becomes a political argument. I would broaden this to cover the broader formal curriculum.

In its way, history is deeply political. You can see this at present in the disputes over the Armenian genocide, the way that Byzantine history still affects modern Greece, the stories of the Balkan conflicts or the continued dispute between China, the  conflict between Japan and China over the rape of Nanking or Aboriginal re-interpretations of Australian history.  

The things that we chose to study, or are chosen for us to study, determine our memories and perceptions of the past. That which is excluded may still exist in history, but for practical purposes it dies from our memories; It takes time, but it happens. That is why there has been so much venom in the history debates, for here we have not just questions of selection, but also of rejection. What we study and indeed what we should think about it is dictated.

I think that the modern history that marcellous and I did at school was probably similar, based on his descriptions. You cannot study political or social history in Australia or England without addressing the question of the union movement and the rise of the Labor (Labour) parties. When I first studied modern history at school, these were one thread in the narrative, The same thread came through in the school economic texts in looking at institutional structures in Australia. That is why, I think, that I retain a view that unions have a legitimate role even when other aspects of my personal views might suggest the opposite.

I have chosen the union case quite deliberately, for several years ago I argued that the central problem facing the union movement lay in the way that changes in curriculum and the teaching of history had effectively amputated the union present from the union past in popular memory. This is not a comment on the Howard period, by the way. The changes happened earlier.

While I may disagree very strongly on particular manifestations of current unionism, I remain sympathetic to the broad role of the union movement because I know the historical context. I found and indeed find unionism to be a good thing in historical terms.

I am out of time this morning. I will conclude these reflections tonight. History text

Tonight stretched into two days! Seems to do that when there are other things on. The US Government shut down has begun; that and other economic news has been the focus of my attention!

In comments, Neil drew my attention to a 2008 post of his: Now, what did I learn half a century ago?. This book is from that post. It was one of the older texts. In comments, marcellous also corrected my interpretation that the history that he did at school was similar to that that I had studied, although I think that the topics marcellous highlighted were common.

Memory is an imperfect beast. I have lost count of the number of times that I have made errors on this blog when relying on memory alone. The question of what was studied in school or university history and when is an example. I have a broad pattern in my mind, but when it comes to detail at a point and especially key inflection points in content or approach, accuracy is lacking.

Course content is a reflection of what was considered important at the time; the way the subject was taught also reflects broader education and indeed social attitudes at the time; the two interact, further influenced by the technology available. All this said, I don't think that it affects my point that  in choosing what to study in history, we also choose what to forget. 


Anonymous said...

I had been hoping you would reply/comment upon marcellous' contribution since I first read it - so am looking forward to your views, Jim.

For now, I'd simply remark that his "when I realised that I could read (albeit in translation and with less knowledge of the context) practically all of the source available to anyone. The closer you get to now, the more that freedom is circumscribed by how many more sources/facts/artifacts are available" is a much more elegant way of making the point I was attempting by saying earlier that "the internet needs a good editor".

Thanks marcellous!

ps hope my italics and bolds survive...

Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, kvd. I will comment, but it seemed sensible at this point to let others do the initial work!

Anonymous said...

Embarrassingly, the internet also needs a good proof reader.

I hope, Jim, you can fix a few of the typos in my comment now that it has made it to the front page.

(eg: part/past; artifacts/artefacts; unclosed parenthesis in antepenultimate para)

Anyway, I look forward to your response to my rather half-baked contribution.

Jim Belshaw said...

I'm sorry that i missed the typos, marcellous. Obviously my proof reading skills are not very good in the early morning! I will correct, but also bring up my response. I'm not sure about half-baked, I found it interesting, and will respond accordingly.

Anonymous said...

Jim, I'm not sure our history studies were so similar.

I did modern history (only) in Years 11 and 12: before that I didn't do history as a subject at school though I did pick some up in Asian Studies (that's a subject that had its moment in the sun in the 70s).

That means I entirely missed the "civics" element of the junior high school syllabus: I don't think I did any Australian history in years 11 and 12 - it was all European starting with the French Revolution and then widening out into a bit of imperialism and anti-imperialism into the twentieth century.

At uni I did almost entirely English and European history: medieval, early modern and late modern European history, until I did my Honours year at ANU and started (but failed to finish) a PhD in Australian history at Sydney.

Jim Belshaw said...

It is a different mix, marcellous, more so than I realised. I was in the old LC course just before the start of the HSC. There was no such thing as civics.

At school, I studied history in the first three years of secondary. Then in fourth and fifth year I took both ancient and modern history plus history honours; that was Australian. I repeated the leaving (my parents thought that I was young to go straight to uni) so did another year of both modern and ancient history plus ancient history honours.

For the life of me, I cannot remember the full year content of the school modern history courses, but in modern history we essentially covered English and European history from Elizabethan times (there was a little earlier stuff as well to the second world war. So we had a hell of a lot of stuff on some of the things you talked about.

University was different again. This was pre-semester days. They were all full year courses. History 1 covered the "theories and evidence on man's development from the beginning to the end of classical civilisation in western Europe." The first quarter of the course was on prehistory, with a strong focus on "the role of archaeology in the service of history." This approach was, i think, quite unusual.

History II covered European history from the fall of Rome to the Council of Trent. Honours students also did a full year distinction course on the English Reformation.

History 111 covered the history of the British Empire and Commonwealth between 1748 and 1950, with a strong focus on the Australian experience. The distinction course, again full year, covered the American Revolution.

In history honours, I studied theory and method of history (compulsory), Australian history and Australian prehistory. This was, I think, the first ever Australian honours prehistory course in the country.I did my honours thesis on the economic basis of Aboriginal life in Northern NSW, using ethnographic evidence in particular.

In all, that's a hell of a lot of history. It was a different world.

By the way, I also managed a major in economics!

Neil said...

Evidence, Jim!

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Neil. Appreciated! Jim

Anonymous said...


By the time I was at Sydney doing history the idea of a unified history course had been abandoned.

You could choose from American, Ancient (now back in the Classics fold I believe), Australian, Early Modern European, Late Modern European and Medieval, but I think you had to wait to second year to do either American or Australian.

There were also some fashionable interdisciplinary subjects. I did Victorian Studies, which was a joint fine arts, English and History course, though I cannot be sure whether I did that as part of my English course or my History course.

The History Department was enormous then compared to what it now is: there was an establishment of over 50 full time academics.

What supported this was the boom (then just coming to an end) in training teachers. History and English departments at the uni were of a similar size and the backbone of their enrolment had been people training to be teachers. History and English teachers were in their turn the humanities departments of schools, and then turned out students who had done these subjects who then enrolled in them at uni.

All of that has changed now.

Jim Belshaw said...

Humanities at UNE was supported by the the same teachers thing as well, marcellous. The semesterisation thing is interesting. In current terms, I did the equivalent of ten semester units in history.

In those full year units I covered every one of your semester choices and more! I had less choice in terms of units across the while range including units beyond history, but I had more depth. What is right?

Anonymous said...

I never said I had semester choices, Jim. That came a bit later. Perhaps within a subject there were some half year courses (I think maybe in the English department - though that was internal to the department rather than a matter of one's enrolment at a faculty level) but in the History department at Syd you did your chosen options in parallel for the whole year.

I possibly didn't make clear that Victorian Studies was not a subject per se but an option within both the History and English departments (as well as Fine Arts). I can't remember which department I did it in.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, marcellous. Correction noted. When did semesters come in at Sydney, by the way?

Neil said...

Reprise of my university History at Sydney 1960-1964:

1960: Ancient History I -- Lent Term Near East with Mr Evans: brilliant! Trinity Term with Mr Sinclair: Greece via Bury's History -- solid but I found Mr S hard to understand. Michaelmas Term Dr Judge on Rome -- wonderful, inspiring, and a lovely man!
1961 -- sat next to Phillip Ruddock! 18th century Europe Dr McManners -- brilliant, and 18th-19th century England as filtered through the Stephen family from the wonderful Mr Stephen -- or I thought so!
1962 -- Asian History -- yes I came first! Ian Nish on China and Japan and Marjorie Jacobs on India. A revelation from which I have thankfully never recovered!
1965 -- Dip Ed at Sydney Teachers College and the first Australian History since God knows when -- Primary School? Dr Peter Lamb. Probably the highlight of that Dip Ed year!

Jim Belshaw said...

That's interesting, Neil. I really feel lucky, sometimes. Lucky because I did so much history, lucky because there were lots of jobs and fewer graduates when I graduated, lucky because I didn't have to target my university course to get a job, lucky to have gone to university at the end of the "elite" vs "mass"

Anonymous said...


you might find this of interest:

Jim Belshaw said...

That's a very interesting piece, marcellous. I have bookmarked it with the aim of coming back to it properly.