History? It’s all about me

On New Year’s Eve my family and I sat watching the BBC’s review of the year. In between resigned mumblings about how we were all “too old for this” and my mother’s general tuttings at people having done stuff of import without having consulted her first, my partner and I noted some glaring omissions. Yes, it’s all very well to get excited about London 2012, the US elections and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. But what about my partner starting his new job? And our three-year-old getting potty trained in record time?  These – alongside our five-year-old getting a speaking part in the school nativity play – have been the key events of our year.

Media narratives are always shamefully selective, aren’t they? I’ve never forgiven Channel 4 News for not mentioning the death of Hollyoaks’ Dan Hunter in 2004, despite the fact that the headlines came on immediately after we’d watched the horror on Debbie Dean’s face as Dan’s rally car exploded. Seriously, priorities, people! If you’re wondering why viewers switch off, look no further. If we can’t see a narrative that’s relevant to us then the whole thing is pointless.

This is why I’m interested in Michael Gove’s apparent determination to put a “connected narrative” of history back into the curriculum. As a white, middle-class British person I am sick and tired of no longer seeing myself as the centre of everything, ever. According to historical facts supplied by the Daily Mail, time was when the path of human progress was obvious to all. Back in the day, every student knew that civilization reached its peak in the achievements of rich white Englishmen, thanks to their general brilliance at liberating concentration camps, letting women vote and abolishing slavery (say “thank you”, everyone!). I took my history GCSE in 1991 and already this valuable narrative was fading from view. Indeed, while my mind was yet to be poisoned by “cultural, ethnic and religious diversity” (I grew up in Cumbria), there was still way too much focus on cotton mills and seed drills and far too little jingoistic bombast. As Conservative MP Phillip Davies says, “it is essential that children learn why they should be proud of their country”. And seeing as they don’t know why, I’ll tell them: it’s because there are rich white men and rich white men rock! Hell, why else would we be letting them run the country and pretty much everything else?

I’ll be honest: my knowledge of historical fact is woeful. Here, for instance, are some things I genuinely used to believe:

  • Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot were husband and wife
  • The Middle Ages started in 1500, because somehow that sounds about right
  • Uri Geller was the first man to orbit the Earth from space

Obviously I know these things are wrong now (just don’t ask me anything else about them). And I don’t have anything against facts – providing they are actual facts. All the same, I worry about the facts we choose and how we piece them together. It’s hardly controversial to note that facts and narratives aren’t the same thing. That’s part of what makes the study of history valuable (and yes, I’m not a historian – or “an” historian, if you’re going to be pedantic. But I did get told that my PhD thesis took “a strong New Historicist approach”. I’m still not 100% sure what that means, but I’ve decided it at least gives me some history points).

Of course, there are some historians who view the whole enterprise as adding stones to an immovable edifice. On at least two occasions I’ve got into arguments with professional historians who’ve claimed that feminism “is wrong” because feminists attempt to change history by recontextualising it. So there is history (white men, setting the past in the context of other white men’s lives), and there is everything else (the stuff of most people’s lives, a nothingness, it would appear). Thus we end on not a linear narrative but a circular one. People of the past were like this because I am like this. I am like this because people of the past were like this. Evolutionary psychologists and neurosexists love it. Everyone else would criticize it except they’re hard-wired not to. Anyhow, I still think these historians are wrong, not least because my partner doesn’t think this and he’s a/an historian (and white and male, which gives him additional authority when claiming that being white and male shouldn’t give a person additional authority).

Well, look at me. I meant to write a post on history and inclusivity – about how a narrative is neither less true nor less valuable for acknowledging its own selectivity. And yet I’ve just ended up going on about myself – my kids, my history GCSE, my unlearned facts, my PhD, my historian partner. All minor details from the life of yet another white, middle-class Brit. But hey, this is important to me. Why can’t it be important to you? Indeed, why can’t it be all that you’d ever want to know?

7 thoughts on “History? It’s all about me

  1. the whole enterprise as adding stones to an immovable edifice.

    There are those that still believe the earth is flat. They need to be tut-tut’d and smirked out of their slumber so they can join the 21st century.

    I’ve got this book on my shelf, it is called On The Shoulders of Giants by Steven Hawking. He discusses and reprints the major works of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton and Einstein. The likelihood of me ever reading past the introductory essays is about the same as me “getting” quantum physics.

    I’m okay with that, because I can understand that these fabulously brilliant individuals advanced science with their mistakes. Others took up the mantle and fixed what was wrong and made our understanding better.

    If said historians acknowledge this pattern occurring in the sciences, why then is History precluded from such beneficial evolutionary process? Or do these fellows in the historical “know” believe that they are more brilliant than Newton or Kepler?

    Evolutionary psychologists and neurosexists love it.

    Playing the role of the medieval church does have its moments…

    P.S

    Happy New Year:)

    1. Great comment! Have to admit, the book does sound a bit much for me (I have proof-read some of my partner’s work and I have to admit, even then my eyes glaze over a bit. Each to their own discipline, I suppose!).
      I hope you have a great new year!

  2. “I did get told that my PhD thesis took “a strong New Historicist approach”. I’m still not 100% sure what that means, but I’ve decided it at least gives me some history points).”

    Love this:) Happy New Year Glosswitch!

  3. Bit late to this, but great post. I’m trained as an archaeologist , which I suppose has taught me that an awful lot of ‘fact’ is interpretation (that and the feminism). What worries me the way Gove et al are going is not only that history will be taught in this narrowly defined way but that due to the fact it’s impossible for anyone who’s not really quite loaded atm to do postgraduate studies (personal bitterness creeping in there ahem), esp in the humanities, the history of the future will be interpreted and created by yet more privileged white men.

    It’s human nature to focus on what we can relate to easily, any good historian must be aware of their own cultural biases and how that affects their work, which is essentially their interpretation of what happened. A good example is the translation I came across studying my dissertation, a priestess had been translated as ‘son of’ so and so purely because of the bias of the translator. The original Sumerian word had no gender implications and meant ‘offspring’. Translator (early 20th c , but lets face it it could happen today) had just assumed that this child was male due to the fact his society saw/sees ‘male’ as the default, as well as her powerful position. The point is lots of these little ‘mistakes’ are still there, in print in books by academics with titles like ‘professor’ and remain unchallenged and they all add up.

    History, archaeology etc are full of these, often laughably incorrect, assumptions whether they be based on gender, race, sexuality, class, whatever. They need to be challenged, after all if they are robust enough they’ll stand up to interrogation. Though I assume people like Gove (I’m not entirely sure, he does seem rather thick at times too) know deep down their take on things is not robust hence a strong desire to stop any real intellectual inquiry and focus on this narrow ‘remembering stuff you are told but not asking for any evidence to back it up’ and reinforces the idea that the history and culture of rich white dudes is history relevant to everyone and that the history and culture of everyone else is a special interest only for that group, i.e ‘women’s history’ ‘lgbt history’ ‘black history’ etc (De Beaviour has an excellent paragraph or so on history and ‘the other’ in the second sex).

    The more we focus on the history of a narrow group of people and have our history defined by such a narrow group who decide what is worth studying decide what is seen as ‘important’ and part of the ‘narrative’ (usually themselves), the more we have a skewed sense of our past and a a result a skewed sense of the present. History needs to be more diverse, both in teaching it and creating it. The old saying is true, history is written by the victors and it’s often propaganda. Propaganda is exactly what Gove wants imho.

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