Wednesday, 16 February 2011


Learning history is a reflection of any society's current cultural, ideological, and political trends at any particular era. The usual arguments in favor of learning history include: a) self-identity and self-awareness, b) learning about the past helps not making mistakes in the present, c) learning about the past helps one understand how societal institutions evolved to their present state, d) history gives all other fields of study a context - studying the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau out of context does not offer a full grasp of his ideas as studying them in context, and e) learning the past allows for speculation about where society is headed - historicism. 

I would argue that all five of the above points are significant, but the most important reason to study history is because it is the only field that does not have a technical language and unlike other fields that specialize and are narrow, history is about everything, thus it affords the student a world-view perspective, although one that may serve to broaden the mind or one that can 'narrow' or reduce the mind toward greater dogmatism. 

If we lived in Victorian England, we would not be exposed to the same interpretation of social classes' role in society during the Tudor dynasty, nor would we have the same attitude toward the role of the church in society, given the inevitable social discontinuity and secularization between King Henry VII and Queen Victoria. The same holds true if we compare how history was taught in the southern US states in the 19th century versus today after the Civil rights movement and an African-American sitting in the White House. All of this suggests the subjectivity of an otherwise empirical field of study. 

But how different was the goal of learning history in Victorian England than in the US before the Civil War, during the Cold War, or today in the 'war on terrorism' epoch? Is this empirical field of study ultimately dominated and guided by societal mega trends and thus subjective if not dogmatic at some level? Curriculum is always revised to reflect societal political and ideological trends and prevailing social values. The current trend in American historiography is that there are "many Americas" reflecting the country's heterogeneous cultural composition and evolving values. 

However, the are always 'national enemies' demonized in subtle or direct ways in the field of history. When I was in elementary school in Greece and high school in the US, there was never any talk about the role of gays and lesbians in history, or of the contributions made to Western civilization by the Arabs and Chinese, to mention two of many examples. The new Cold War against Islamic 'terrorism' (unconventional warfare) has replaced the old demon Communism. Therefore, there is thematic continuity of enemies against the state, against American democracy, a process that afford identity through the concept of 'separateness' (American Exceptionalism) has to do less with learning and a great deal with indoctrination.

Historical interpretations are a reflection of changing times, thus history, the analysis of past empirical events, people and institutions is subordinated to an ideology that is invariably nationalist. One hundred years from now, historians will not view the Cold War in the same manner as secretary of State Dean Acheson and Russian foreign minister Andrei Gromyko did fighting the early Cold War amid the nascent nuclear arms race and seeing each other's country as 'the enemy'.

Besides ideological influences that shape historical interpretation, something that is nearly unavoidable, there is the added problem in contemporary culture of presenting history from a superficial and entertaining manner that reflects the age of mass media/entertainment. As a historian in the U.S., I found it disturbing that increasingly the focus on substance was preempted by style, superficialities, appearances and above all the cult of personality and 'entertaining' material rather than the painful one that forced students to think. In short, history as a TV show about the rich and famous, history as a theatrical play about heroes and villains, history appealing to emotion. As the mass media has gone this route, it has also influenced the course of education and this method makes indoctrination much easier thus serving a political goal.

T.S. Elliot's "Hollow Men" is just as appropriate today as when he wrote it, even in the field of higher education. But 'hollowness' may actually serve a number of goals and that is why it persists, and not necessarily because people choose to be hollow. Besides history that has been used as indoctrination, not just in the US but in all countries, the field of Education that train people to become teachers also contributes to the problem. With apologies to many excellent education professors for generalizing, the "hollow trend" is a reflection of college courses in Education Departments that focus so much on methods, rather than content, which ought to be empirical and historical. Even when content is the focus, historical figures are rarely given a multi-dimensional character that best represents them.

The late Professor Ronald Hilton (Stanford University) was right that Stalin has been stereo-typed, as have Napoleon, Caeser Augustus, Mao, Kennedy, De Gaulle, and countless others. One reason is because political leaders are easy to stereotype, and teachers have an easier time stereotyping than going through lengthy and complex explanations. Superficial analysis is the easy, painless, and popular way of explaining complex multi-dimensional personalities, institutions and event. Moreover, contemporary culture rooted in the atomistic value system focuses far more on stereotyped personalities rather than complex structures, and it is easier to stereotype structures than to unravel their complexities.

In a conversation I participated among university professors before Gorbachev, one of my colleagues asked the other who was a Russian specialist if there was anything at all that was positive about Soviet society, any redeeming quality to a system that was on its way to collapsing in the 1980s. The Russian professor's reply was that absolutely nothing about Russia was good, because the ideology of Communism on which Russian society was built was evil in contrast to the US that serves as model of democratic society in the world. This view reflected dichotomous Cold War thinking that pervaded from the State Department to universities, leaving the student of history with nothing more than an impressionistic and partial view of Russian history and society.

Was Nicolo Machiavelli incorrect to argue in THE PRINCE that people judge by appearances whether in politics or every day life? And is it not easier and simpler for the mind to be immersed in indoctrination than to figure out a universe of complexities like an astrophysicist? Perhaps the existentialists are correct to argue that there may be an innate proclivity in human nature to reduce people, events, policies, etc. to simple terms that best reflects one's world-view of objectifying the other, and of making sense of the outside world in simple terms".

Regrettably, complex institutions, policies, and events are explained in the same manner by many educators, journalists, and politicians, thus education can be, but certainly not always, more about indoctrination than it is about having the benefit of multiple perspectives and encouraged to enjoy the freedom to think for oneself and to gain greater appreciation of the other and the broader world. Not that the trendy political correctness of multiculturalism carried to extremes does not pose a different set of problems, raising questions about the theoretical and practical difficulties in trying to teach history as a vehicle of enlightening students rather than indoctrinating them.


Anonymous said...

I regret seeing an interesting post left without receiving any response. My comment here serves more to fill the lacuna than to offer any substantial criticism.

The author lists five reasons to study history, but concludes that it broadens the mind by bringing everything under its aegis. I limit myself to these points.

a) Self-identity. While undoubtedly we are influenced by the past, history is not simply a causal chain, but improbably emerges. To the extent we are products of a specific past, we are divided from others; to the extent we construct our unique natures from our present association with others, we are social beings. Self-identity strikes me as a peculiarly modern Western ideological perspective.

b) Learning from past mistakes. History never repeats itself, for it is an emergent process that always yields novelties because people are creative and circumstances always change.
Historicism suggests that we can learn little from the past. Also, historiography is less about people in situations comparable to our own, but about the counterproductive decisions of powerful others whom we should not emulate.

c) Learn how institutions evolved. The question is why this is either interesting or important. Does the word "evolved" suggest that institutions are increasingly adapted to circumstance? That is not even true in biological evolution. In human history, circumstances are too diverse to draw any conclusion about any particular institution. Rather than a strange Darwinian view of institutions, more plausibly their function is to control society in service to the interests of ruling classes.

d) History provides a context for specifics. The point of "context" is not that one engages a wider array of determinants in the definition of an initial state of a process, for this leaves the process still unequivocally determinant. As others (Carr for example) have suggested, historiography describes an "open" process that provides room for innovative action, So the study of history persuades one of the centrality of imaginative and constructive action in relation to novel circumstances. This can't teach rules for behavior, but a courage to act.

e) Historiography supports speculation abut the future. I don't understand what this has to do with historicism. Historicism suggests the constraint of circumstance. One can't responsibly speculate about the future, but only about real possibilities in the present. These real possibilities are constrained by historical circumstance, and so don't support speculation, but constrain it.

f) Historiography offers a universal perspective, while other fields of knowledge use jargon and are narrow. Jargon, of course, is only shorthand that presumes cumulative knowledge, while historical knowledge is not cumulative because it engages continual innovation under new circumstances. Historiography in fact has been remarkably parochial. After WWII, UNESCO, guided by people like Geoffrey Barraclough, had the naive belief that knowledge of other cultures would curtail sectarian violence. I suspect the reason why this failed was because you don't engage others with a Cartesian head, but with the heart and body.

Haines Brown

Jon Kofas said...

I agree with much of what Professor Brown has to say here. Just to limit myself to what I consider a very significant point regarding UNESCO and the great scholar Geoffrey Barralough, there is no doubt that indeed there is a naive or optimistic outlook that operated in the thinking regarding sectarian violence. Influenced by the magnificence of the Renaissance and its contrinutions to European civilization, Barraclough believed in cultural diffusion. I would argue that he was also sufficiently realistic to accept that the revolt against the West characterized the first half of the 20th century. Living in the early 21st century, we can all agree that Barraclough's statement about the fitst half of the 20th century would hold true for the second half of the 20th century as well as the early 21st century, with no end in sight.

Anonymous said...

Some interesting points here. I agree with the previous comment that this deserves more feedback. History can help us learn from our past mistakes. It seems that the moral code (conventional moral rules from social pressures) in the face of war can sometimes be reversed, for good for example, protecting Jews in in Hitler's Germany. I think the notion of amorality and morality in the context of history is something that must be emphasised since its the only means to finding a utopian (if possible) end.