Sunday, 6 March 2011

History & Politics Go Together LIke Space And Time

The David Starkey argy bargy on Channel 4's Dream School got me casting my mind back to my own experiences of the subject, which I studied to part degree level.

The furious debate waging over Starkey's treatment of the kids taking place on blogs and Twitter essentially come down to which side of the political line you stand. The liberals are appalled by a man in a position of power and responsibility stooping to personal insults and put downs to a child. The conservatives applaud his view of the moral and behavioural decline in standards as evidenced by the children in the show. Sages point out that what did people expect, sending in a University lecturer into a secondary schoolroom of pupils who had evidenced an unwillingness to go through the school system? The logic being that University students are driven and want to be there to be lectured, whereas these kids pretty much don't (though the tenor of Dream School is that given the right guidance and inspirational leadership, they actually pretty much do).

Can I just nail that last illusion for a start? I attended University to study history. By the middle of my second year, I was ready to drop out because the University lecturers had killed any love I had for the subject. They weren't interested in teaching us, only in pursuing their own researches. Students were a contractual obligation. I learned nothing new about the subject in 18 months than I had at school. I merely covered different periods of history and countries. I only stayed on because I started writing stageplays which I could get produced by hungry student thespians. And not least because I changed my course to Sociology and Politics, an act which almost caused a riot in my conservative College since it had a reputation for being a history specialist and here was the first person in four years to jump ship to what they regarded as a wooly Lefty pseudo-science. All my tutors had to be found from outside my college. Said it all really. One of my courses was on Revolution and was a shared course with History, but my tutors were now from a Politics bent and not a History one.

History is made by the academics. For the discipline and rigours of historical research seemingly have to be signed off by presentation to academia for rigorous falsifiablity testing, even if the historical author is working outside of the University system. And that means academics, who are contracted to produce papers and publish learned books, are partly filtered in their choices by the market system. No one wants another book replicating the thesis of one that has gone before. New academics, seeking permanent tenure, look for a historical gap in the market.

Academic History is also made according to political allegiances. The very notion of a Whiggish view of History, of a slow but steady historical movement towards progress, is the liberal view writ large. That man's lot can always be improved through enlightenment and a more equitable levelling of wealth. This is of course anathema to conservative historians.

The Whiggish view I had been taught at school offered that from the first formal British Prime Minister Robert Walpole in 1715, through the Industrial Revolution, the First Great Reform Act of 1832 extending the vote, represented a triumphant march of progress only felled by the First World War and the Great Depression. In my conservative college, my tutor moved the datelines, back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (securing the British Monarchy for Protestantism for once and for all) up until the same Great Reform Act, was actually a triumph of conservative reactionaryism, as it held back a true universal suffrage and preserved huge imbalances of wealth. Just by moving the datelines by 27 years. He based his argument on research into a horde of up until then unexplored pamphlets and tracts by the Jacobites (The Catholics), 'proving' that their view was a whole lot more widespread than had been held perviously, even if they lost the wars and the battle for Royal Succession.

But here we still have the politics of those on high. This isn't the First Estate of the Clergy, the Second of the nobility, the monarch who stood outside of the Estates, this was the unofficial Fourth Estate of a fledgling literate media elite. This was still high politics, ignoring the grass roots of all those lumped together as the rest, in the form of the Third Estate. History until the modern age of recording technology of camera, of tape recorder, of microfiche and now digital technologies, has always been the realm of those with scribes and chroniclers. It has only ever been about High politics at Court, until those monarchies collapsed with the First World War. In those eras when edicts and ukases made by State rulers could still deeply impact on citizens, whereas now it's not the politicians so much as market forces which determine our lives, unless those disempowered leaders decide to take their countries into wars.

History is politics, both the politics of the hierarchies it has traditionally studied and with the personal agendas of the contemporary academic historians making those researches. Should we be surprised that David Starkey has made overtly political statements in all the furore over what in the final reckoning was an adult's lack of self-control of his tongue when addressing a child? I don't doubt that there are some very credible historians with less of a political agenda, but as is always the case, the TV historians such as Starkey and AJP Taylor before him, are not necessarily the best academics, merely the most photogenic or TV savvy of them. If Dream School wanted to pick an academic historian, maybe like with Mary Beard for Latin, they should have just gone for a non-TV brand name. But then I can't really see the point of having more than one University lecturer on the staff to see if University lecturers can inspire and teach secondary school kids or not.

We are always counselled to know our history because it repeats itself and we would be better prepared accordingly. This enables all sorts of political agendas to be wrought, appealing to various historical happenings for back up. The problem is that we never know which bit of history is going to repeat itself when, so such an argument is specious.

If I may be so bold as to quote from The Gang Of Four (no, not Mao's bunch, history see?) can I leave you with the following video:

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