Friday, August 10, 2007

The point of history

As results week approaches, along with the inevitable cries of dumbing down, I've noticed an occasional trope in the media with regard to the discussion of history. It's on display today in the Guardian in a rather good article analysing what A-level results mean (essentially, they are now an enabling qualification rather than the elite-determining test that they once were - of course more people are passing them, that's the point.)
Language teaching now puts more emphasis on oral fluency, less on written translation. History is no longer a succession of great men and great battles, because no serious scholar now treats it as such.
Both these examples are actually evidence of why the A-level has become less about education, and more about exam passing. The reason languages were taught with an emphasis on written translation was because written language has a much stronger focus on the grammar and structure of a language. Anyone who has been to Italy should realise that a reasonably retentive memory and a bit of goodwill will enable you to be understood in basic Italian, and to understand others. But progression from ristorante Italian to proper conversational Italian (let alone fluency) depends on a knowledge of the structure of the language that is only really obtainable through reading and writing it. Learning lists of irregular verbs was tedious, but ultimately necessary for a proper enjoyment of the language.
As for history, of course history is more than a procession of 'great men and battles'. But the building blocks of history, playing a similar role to that of grammar for language, are to be found in the simple narratives of history. IF you don't know what happened in 19th century Germany, to take an extremely well-worn example, you haven't a cat in hell's chance of understanding the Nazis. If you have no idea of what happened between the Tudors and Stuarts and Queen Victoria, how are you supposed to appreciate the role played by Parliamentary Government? If you don't know the basic structure, you can't understand the intricacies. This should be a truism, but it isn't.
The educational focus has been to move away from 'Kings and Queens' from 'talk and chalk' and from dates. But without some knowledge of them, understanding will not be possible. History, at its best, is an all embracing subject - Peter Wilby writes of media studies, saying that no less an authority than the late Anthony Sampson described the growth of media power as the greatest change in Britain over the past 40 years. Without the context of the rest of society, the study of the media is worthless. Within then context of the rest of society, the study of the media is history.
By all means encourage the analytical teaching of history, but appreciate that it can't be done properly without basic historical knowledge underpinning it. Good history can be best described as the re-assessment of existing knowledge: looking more closely at things taken for granted. This can only be done if there is some existing knowledge.

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