Monday, October 17, 2011

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

Idioms rarely mean what they literally say and it’s a very schoolboy-ish sense of humour that pretends to take idioms at their literal word.

But there is one idiom that really irritates me, because it has the potential to completely mislead people.

The idiom is the one about re-writing history.

A couple of years ago I watched a TV debate in which an opposition member was disagreeing furiously with a cabinet minister. He disputed the minister’s version of events from years earlier. Both the minister’s “facts” and the minister’s interpretation were wrong, he said. Finally, in exasperation, he burst out with “You’re trying to re-write history!”

And seated at home, I immediately thought “That’s not what you really mean, is it?”

The simple fact is that re-writing history is what the study of history is all about. If historians did not constantly re-write history they would not be historians.

New facts come to light, archives are opened which had previously been inaccessible, secret or confidential documents pass into the public domain, a wider group of witnesses become available to testify to events; and old history books are suddenly seen to be either inaccurate or inadequate. They are superseded by new books. History is re-written.

One historian finds another historian’s standard work on a topic to be based on flawed methodology or to be unbalanced or tendentious or otherwise eccentric. She writes her own book on the same topic. History is re-written.

This bubble called The Present, in which were are forever travelling, moves further and further away from a set of events. We now see those events in a new light and from a new perspective. A respectable history book on the Great War, written in 1930, would have a radically different perspective on that war’s consequences from a respectable history book on the First World War written in 1960. History is re-written.

Social attitudes change. Aspects of the past that might once have been deemed trivial or unimportant are now seen as crucial to our understanding. For many historians, history once consisted of a narrative about politics, national conflicts and leadership. Now class and gender and religion and race and popular culture and customs are seen to be just as important. History is re-written.

Okay, I’m not being the facetious schoolboy who can’t recognize an idiom when he meets it. I fully understand that when he said “You’re trying to re-write history!”, the furious MP really meant “You’re falsifying history!” or even “You’re lying!” He certainly wasn’t initiating a learned debate on historiography.

But the phrase “re-writing history” does tend to reinforce the popular superstition that history is one single, immutable, objective and agreed set of facts and interpretations, and that somewhere there is a definitive version of history with which everyone has to agree.

This assumption (rarely thought-through) often lives in people who haven’t thought about the nature of history since their schooldays, and who believe the “facts” of history are as objective as the “facts” of the periodic table at least seem to be. (It is beyond my ability to discuss subjectivity in the sciences, but I think you know what I mean here.). “That’s not the way I learnt it at school” is a phrase in the same ball-park as “You’re trying to re-write history!”

History is mutable, always contested and always written from different viewpoints. In its strictest academic dressing, it still carries a huge freight of subjectivity and will reflect some of the assumptions of the time in which is was written. There is no such thing as unmediated history (history separable from the way it has been recorded and interpreted). There is certainly no such thing as objective history to which every real historian agrees.

In saying all this, I am not submitting to the lame postmodernist doctrine that history is nothing but viewpoint, structured “story” and interpretation, and that therefore it is merely a species of fiction. If this were so, then historians would be free to ignore the most reliable sources and invent whatever they like. Let it be clearly understood that such a doctrine means there are no grounds for refuting fantasists, Holocaust-deniers, Flat-Earthers or other loonies when they purport to be writing history.

History, even as it is constantly and legitimately being re-written, has to be based on sources external to the historian and his/her interpretations. There are ways of judging whether sources are good or bad, reliable or unreliable, representative or not representative of an era. History is not a case of “anything goes”.

Even so, if an historian is told in all seriousness  “You’re trying to re-write history”, the correct answer should be “Yes. That’s my job.”

1 comment:

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you. I think this must mark us both out as old fogeys. Here's something else that will support that notion in my case: my father, educated in the UK in the 1930s to the end of primary school (despite the passing of the Education Act 1935, no free and compulsory secondary school for him) is one of the better 'educated' people I know. My mother, who grew up in NZ, received three or four years of secondary schooling and was also well educated. Both continued the process of learning on many fronts throughout their lives. Both were insistent that their children gain as much formal education as possible.

    My point (argued from two suspect data points, i.e. my parents) is that the old style of teaching put a lot more into kids' heads than the contemporary style. Your views?