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Thursday, 28 October 2010

What use is history right now? (Or, put another way, why do I bother?)

The first alternative (at least) is a question we’re all asked, as historians, but I don’t find the stock answers very convincing – especially in John Tosh’s Why History Matters (though his heart is clearly in the right place and he is obviously on the side of the angels). I may well come back to this in more detail as it is an issue close to my heart. Suffice it to say that arguments about ‘relevance’ very rarely wash. They sure as hell don’t wash right now.

Let me give a very shallow and fairly crass example, just because it set me thinking. Whilst trying to complete an examiner’s report last night I was listening, as is my wont, to JazzFM, when a programme came on called "Wilson's World". The culprit was one Michael Wilson, a former Business Editor at Sky, and it will thus not be surprising that he delivered a quite astonishing tirade in favour of the cuts, in favour of reducing a ‘bloated’ public sector, in favour of lower pension rates for older people about to lose their jobs and thus less likely to find alternative employment. His constant touchstone was the private sector and small business managers who, apparently, have some sort of privileged insight into the real world of the economy. The argument was delivered in the rational style one might expect from this stable: deliver an argument against the proposition and then shout ‘rubbish’. Two initial points that struck me. The first was that it seemed curious for a radio station without an enormous listener base or (to judge from the ads) varied advertising support to alienate or offend the doubtless many people about to lose their jobs, especially in the public sector, or about to have their lives made more difficult. The second was that it seemed especially odd given the roots of the music which the station plays. OK, Jazz may no longer find its principal audience in the economically disadvantaged areas of the USA; it may have strayed on to being popular among beard-stroking privileged ‘whites’ like me. But who plays or listens to jazz without being aware of its origins? What sort of idiot doesn’t see a disjuncture between this music and a pompous (former) Murdocrat celebrating a series of cuts that will hit the already disadvantaged most?

A face, some might say (though not me, obviously), that was crying out for a good kicking...

Leave all that to one side.  Awareness of that history is not what made me think of the everyday value of a historical education. It was the fact that – before I got so annoyed that I switched off (I admit it) – I did pause to listen to Wilson’s arguments and wonder whether his ‘truth-claims’ were what he (and many others) supposes them to be. Source criticism: one looks into the back-ground of the journalist; one sees ex-Sky Business Editor and one thinks ‘aha – so not likely to give a balanced account’. One questions the quality of his touchstones and one might (I suppose) find oneself thinking along the following sorts of lines:

“Hang on a minute here. These ‘private sector’ gurus are the ones claiming that the public sector does not live in the real world because it is screened from ‘reality’ by being based upon fiscal revenue rather than the market, and yet was it not the private sector economic realists who so messed up the economy by their irresponsible playing around with money? Not only that; was it not those same market economy ‘realists’ who then had to be bailed out with a trillion pounds of public money? And isn’t it them who are still, in spite of buggering everything up, paying themselves enormous annual bonuses (and predicted by some to be about to come cap in hand to western governments again, for more hand-outs)? And they are accusing the public sector of living in an unreal, world, artificially sustained by tax money …? Hmmm... And is it necessarily the case that the way the private sector organises its pensions is automatically the ‘right’ model, to which the public sector needs to conform (I’m thinking, randomly, of the Mirror pensions…), or might it not just possibly be the other way round?”

What’s ‘historical’ about this, as I see it, is that the most important thing about an historical education is not the accumulation of knowledge about facts about the past; it is the training to think critically about what you are being told; to be ‘radically sceptical’ about everything, about each and every truth claim. OK, I am predisposed to be hostile to Wilson’s views (something which I would say comes with being a historian, but that’s a separate issue) but my training makes me start by questioning what I thought I knew – that the cuts are a Bad Thing and that the arguments in favour are just so much ideological Tory eyewash. But what if Wilson is right; what if the economic realities do make all this inevitable and ultimately necessary? I have to think more about them before I can conclude that my initial view is still worth holding.

I have attempted to train students in this for some time, and instil in them this sort of scepticism. I have given the highest marks to essays disagreeing with me! Provided that the argument is well informed, well constructed and sound, then whether or not I think (with the obvious advantages of experience and knowledge that I have over them) that their counter-argument ultimately works is irrelevant. I have lectured them more than once about the value of history lying in never believing what you’re told, in never accepting that what one is told is ‘the natural’ or ‘the right’, let alone ‘the only’ way of doing things. There is always more than one way of skinning a cat and (to quote a former colleague) 'common sense' is rarely either so common or so sensible.  This value can be found in history of any period but one advantage of the era I study is simply that its initial ‘alterity’ makes it quite clear, quite early on, that the way things are now are not the only ways of thinking about and organising the world: things like sexuality and race are not eternal, fixed biological categories.

What worries me so much about ‘students today’ – in the UK (or at York) at any rate – is the way in which they are so uninterested in this; the way that they are not interested in history as a discipline (or set of disciplines), a rigorous way/s of thought. They just want interest and entertainment, and they do not want me to teach them how to think; they want me to teach them what to write … so they can get their 2:1. This is the inevitable outcome of an education system that is obsessed with league tables and assessment. The league tables mean that results are everything; because results are everything, how marks are arrived at has to be completely ‘transparent’; because how marks are arrived at has to be completely ‘transparent’ students can be told that if you do X, Y and/or Z you will get such and such a mark. For now, British Universities don’t work this way (but with the creeping and malign influence of feedback-driven teaching who knows for how long?), which means that A-levels prepare students very badly for University education (not just in history; indeed from what I learn the situation might actually be rather better in history than in many other subjects). It dismays me that it is so difficult to retrain them, and that fees and so on buttress the desire to be assured of a good mark rather than a good education – prioritising the destination over the journey as I am fond of saying. It worries me that we are further training people who won’t question what they are told; who will accept something because it makes appeal to supposed truth claims; generations of unthinking accepters. This would undermine everything I have recently written about the need to keep fighting for a better and fairer world.

I would like to know if anyone has any decent ideas on how to deal with this, or significantly different experience.

The argument that we keep plugging away for the handful that do ‘get it’, let alone for those that stay on for higher degrees, doesn’t seem to me to be sufficient. Most history students have always gone on to do other things – it would be a good thing too if we thought we were giving them a proper historical training in how to think critically. History students have always gone on to be lawyers; the difference is this: the York history graduating cohort of 2009 had set up a ‘law society’ before they even finished their first year, had guest lectures, had created a law society magazine and were writing articles for it in their second. But what of their History Society? What price getting them to set up a history magazine and write for it? Fat chance. They don’t even have guest lectures. History Society (unless it has changed dramatically since I started my Leverhulme) focuses on (to be blunt) “piss-ups” of various forms and pretty much nothing else. How do we get history students back into a desire to think critically about their subject as an intellectual discipline and to find that as engaging as History Channel History, history for entertainment only (e.g. all my daft lecture jokes)?

Confronting this situation, and changing it, would seem to be one of the most pressing challenges (intellectually) to face historians at the moment.