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11 Aug 2003 00:00
History will judge us. Well, of course.
It’s what politicians in a jam always say when the judges of the moment grow baleful.
You wouldn’t, at first glance, foresee the end of history (teaching). History can still support its own cable channel as well as a number of showy TV historians, dishing up the past like celebrity chefs (“Now for my special boeuf Wellington”). The BBC can even make decent ratings out of the best of Britons. But never confuse entertainment with the serious stuff.
History as a school and university subject is in stark retreat throughout most of the western world. Fewer students, fewer resources. Less demand, less supply. When the American History Association mounted a detailed comparative study a couple of years ago, it found the number of full-time historians sliding drastically, replaced - if at all - by part-time unlucky Jims (up by a fifth in two decades). Among US universities, 47% had no capability to teach African history; 58% had no Middle East history courses. And is that the sound of Durham University’s east Asian studies department going bump overnight?
Simply, the more we flit around planet Earth, physically or electronically, the less we know or seek to know about it. If it’s Friday, it must be Bangkok. Globalisation, among many other things, is the slow death of history, the dull, dreary answer to all sparky questions. No need to know.
Enter Professor Jonathan Clark, from Northumbria University via Kansas, one of the sparkiest British questioners on the scene. His new book (Our Shadowed Present, Atlantic books) nails some of the most immediate and pervasive political problems high on the board. Is history some stately progression, the accumulated wisdom of building blocks that will one day put Blair and Bush on marble plinths? Did it, in fact, finish with the belief that America, the big winner, had called time on extraneous ferment?
The exhilarating point about Clark is that there is never an “end” to anything. His history offers insights as it churns through time, but all conclusions always need looking at afresh from generation to generation. Forget plinths, think prisms. Look at what’s happening now, this minute, and find instant relationships
Open any asylum-seeking issue of the Daily Mail, for instance. This English “nationalism” thing. Did you know that nobody used the word in its modern sense until the last third of the 19th century? That the concept behind it, at least in England, was unformulated, cemented many centuries before by a dominance of language, a natural array of allegiances and an influence we barely stop to ponder these days: the binding power of the Anglican church? (Are gay bishops the end of that peculiarly English bit of history?)
Did you, equally, ever realise how relatively feeble (by European lights) is the supposed nationalism of the Scots and the Welsh, their languages long since mostly vanquished, their accents no more distinctive than Geordie or Scouse? Who can wonder that the magic of devolution, tardily unveiled, hasn’t brought a surge of talent and confidence to Edinburgh and Cardiff? There is little in the real past, not the confected past of modern legend, to suggest that it would or could.
And (worse yet for our deputy PM as he sweats through the ides of warmed-up August): who believes that English “regions” can develop a sudden enthusiasm for quasi-self-government because Whitehall deems that necessary? Maybe there is no West Lothian question that matters, and therefore no need for an answer. We don’t live in an England of lÃ¤nder or cantons or départements. Our history, and the ideas of those who made it, is different.
Clark never ceases striving to amaze. Can we please stop swallowing deluding myths about the “revolution” that gave birth to the United States? Nobody called it or thought of it as a revolution at the time. Look at those 13 colonies and wonder whether the founding fathers quite knew where they were coming from, or going to.
As for the “special relationship”, we’ve ceased to teach anything special or shared about the relationship that history gave us. Our students believe that America somehow “happened”, thrust into supremacy fully formed after a brisk bit of Mel Gibson action. Their students, fed on the academic fatted calf of American exceptionalism, begin with Teddy Roosevelt and seal out the rest of the world (except as a place to be occasionally rescued from itself). We’re not teaching any relationship, let alone a special one. We’re united only in progressive mutual ignorance.
Britain’s relationship with Europe, by contrast, lies lost already in a limbo of incomprehension. Here, in many ways, was our history. Here, especially, was Germany, the country from whence our kings and queens arrived on expensive transfer. Compare the Prussian influence to the influence of England within Great Britain. Keep reinterpreting. Remember that the cliches of diplomacy, like “the west” and “western values”, are mostly bunk nouveau. What we think of as history is mostly received wisdom, covered in a little designer dust.
Of course, true history never ends. Britain’s history in the Iraq of 80 years ago returns suddenly to bite us on the knee. America’s history in Liberia nips a toe. We’re taught constantly of the need to keep teaching it. Judge us so sourly if we don’t. - Guardian Unlimited Â
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