|‘Just blow the bloody doors off the curriculum, Hooky!’|
History has always been a battlefield. Few subjects pay allegiance so easily to their imagined relationship with ideology. Like Roulette, your chips are either on red or black-or in this analogy, blue. On one hand there are advocates of liberation history: society seen as a history of class struggle, increments of emancipation, rights, justice and social capital. On the other, the advocates of linearity, chronology, dead white Kings and empires. Frequently this is seen as winner takes all: every chip goes in. But this is a convenient, lazy perspective. The game permits other permutations.
Every leak is accompanied by a perfect storm of ire, thunderous navel gazing and the sound of swords being sharpened. Remove one Churchill, Seacole, Victoria- and prepare for the siege of Krishnapur as their devotees explain how their absence extinguishes understanding of Gallipoli, Crimea, lady’s mourning fashions. Specify their inclusion, and wad your muskets for their defence. Everyone has their pet histories. How dare you omit Amritsar, or the Sepoy Mutiny? shouts one end of the stands, while the other screams for Rorke’s Drift and Admiral Beaufort.
A good deal of the non- teaching chatterazzi have focused on content, because it’s the easiest to grasp, and because it lends itself so readily to prejudice and expectation.
|Victorian London in the 1890s|
This debate has, like the event horizon of a black hole, swallowed everything and everyone. Curiously, the last thing that generated this kind of historical heat in the public imagination was Danny Boyle’s omnipopular frontispiece to the Olympics’ when 60 million Britons put down their Unhappy Meals and thought, ‘Hang on, maybe I won’t put my head in an oven today.’ I’ve heard some people, normally ones I would trust with keys and lighters, saying that ‘this is the kind of history we should be teaching children.’ What, the bit where the Queen jumped out of a plane with James Bond? The bit where Isambard Brunel forged the rings of Mordor? It was brilliant, of course, but to understand any part of it, first you have to understand to what it was alluding. Otherwise it’s just spectacle. Which for many, perhaps it was, punctuated with Voldemort and Mary Poppins.
Everyone wants children to understand history, but no one, it seems can agree what this means. Real understanding requires the knowledge of facts in context: knowing that, and knowing how it relates to other data. Facts without context are just that favourite of the anti-facts brigade: pub quiz fodder. But facts, coherently juxtaposed, transforms them from islands to archipelagos, to continents of comprehension. On such broad plains, everything else is possible: innovation, invention, intellectual revolution.
|Some dead guy|
Few things lens themselves as agreeably to this process as history. Until time decides to act otherwise, it flows from past to future on the crest of an unfathomable now, and in one direction only, unless you are a sub-atomic particle, which none of us are presently. To understand one moment, we must understand the moment that preceded it, in a succession of yesterdays that reaches backwards from the Playstation 4 to the Whitechapel Ripper, to the White Rajah of Sarawak, the Diet of Worms, dinosaurs and beyond.
Few would dispute this. The contention rests as much on what is included as what is omitted. Given that any history not personally lived must necessarily be condensed (and even such personal experiences are partial and fragmentary), which stories make the cut? What’s important?
Well, from the looks of it, we are. The decision to use the history of Britain as a launch pad to understand the world has received a battering, but where else should we start, standing as we are in Britain? As children our understanding is immersed in ‘I’. This egoism slowly melts into an appreciation of the second, then third person. We call this ‘growing up’. To understand the history of the world it is necessary to understand the history of your own hearth. First, where we came from; then, how we fit into other stories. In this way, an encyclopaedia of narratives are stitched together into a broader tapestry that itself reaches out, far beyond our grasp. It would be foolish to lay the first brick of a wall in mid air; bridges are built from your feet, outwards.
Part 2 to follow tomorrow, wherein Mr Bennett considers the matter of Romans, Vikings, Spacemen and Pirates