Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sunday Essay – looking back at 2006: the importance of history

I started this post on Saturday morning. Would I finish it then, I wondered? No, as it tuned out. It was such a beautiful day, quite gorgeous really. Instead, I went out to revisit Berry Island. Then Sunday was a beautiful day as well.

I have written 2,686 posts on this blog since my first test post on 19 March 2006. That’s a lot of writing, causing me to pause and reflect.

In my second post on 8 April 2006, I described the purpose of Personal Reflections in this way:

Since my first test post, I have been mulling over how I want to use this blog.

Much of my professional work is client or management focused. There is so little time for reflection, for integrating the things I do and learn, both professional and non-professional. There is also little time for conversation.

I work mainly from a home office. On some days I am alone for six to eight hours except for the constant email traffic, most focused on work issues. This adds to the conversation gap.

So, thinking about all this, I want to use this blog to chat about all those things that would otherwise be submerged.

Have I done that? I guess so. The blog is still my vehicle for personal reflections. That said, my world has changed enormously since 2006 and my writing has changed (at least to some degree) with it. Writing so often over such a period, the blog and its fellows have become in part a record of the changing currents in my life, Australian life and beyond.

I say that my writing has changed to some degree, for in fact the second and third posts dealt with history, still a current pre-occupation.

In On History, I reported that I had created a second blog - - dedicated to the history, culture and activities of the New England region in Australia.

I then went on to discuss Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s attack on what he called "black arm band history. “The PM's statement had been attacked and supported”, I stated. “However, my interest lies in what the debate tells us about the current state of historiography.

At the time, I felt that at least so far as Australia is concerned, the study of history had been in decline as a discipline. I found this sad, for I loved history.

Do I still feel this way? I’m not sure. Sometimes I do, sometimes not.

I would argue, I think, that the influence of history as a discipline within the academy has declined. I would also argue that this is not unique to history (consider the case of economics), but is part of a broader pattern of change flowing from the changing role of universities themselves as they move from educational institutions to a still to be defined role as training and credentialing institutions whose relevance depends upon an imperfect marketplace.

Does this sound tart? Perhaps. I would assert this, however. As universities have changed their role, they have vacated space that has been filled by other vehicles. In my historical research and writing, I use university based research all the time. However, whether it be history, economics or Australian archaeology, .it is nearly always pre-Dawkins. Now for the things that I need post Dawkins I have to go elsewhere.

The stuff I want does not exist within the academy. Now I have to search elsewhere, finding people like me who are on the outer but are interested. I do find it and that is why I am less pessimistic than I was in 2006.

Returning to that ancient post, I noted that when I looked at the Prime Minister's comment, I looked at the history wars, the conflict between different views of Australian history. Ah, there is another change. In 2006, I was concerned about the history wars and indeed the broader culture wars because I saw them as genuinely important. .Now I am bored except to the degree that they deal with conflicts in values tat are of interest as an analytical topic. But why have my views changed? .

The history and culture wars have now become irrelevant except to the degree that they deal with conflicts in values. Then they are of interest as an analytical topic. Beyond that, they actually have little to do with history or indeed culture.

One of the reasons, not the only one, that I have been able to break free from the travail of the history wars lies in my changing attitude to the decline of history. I am less worried about the history wars because there are now so many outlets, so many people involved that many different views are presented. The gatekeepers have lost their power.

Turning to methodological matters, in my then response to Mr Howard, I made a distinction between two things so far as history was concerned.

The first was the question of topic selection, the question to be answered. Selection of topics has always been determined by interests and values. So topics shift as interest and values shift.

The second was the question of methodology, the approach to be adopted.

I may disagree with topic selection. I felt, for example, that the current selection of topics in the Australian school curriculum was narrow and biased. But that's an opinion.

However, I did worry when (as seems to be happening) the approach adopted to the analysis of questions and topics was affected by opinions and values. Herein, to my mind, lay the real problem in the history wars.

History as a discipline has (or should have) its own rigour. The purpose of analysis is to test, not prove. When proving or justifying becomes the central point, the discipline is lost.

This remains my view.

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