Thursday, 8 January 2015

Thoughts on History: the man, the mouse and the marzipan

This blog post has been a pain in the arse to write. One of the things about history, as a subject, is that it is meant to help one develop the skills necessary to sustain and substantiate an interpretation or argument. However, I have failed to do that in this post. It has had many different incarnations and even received IRL thought (which is to say, when I'm out and about it's weighed on my mind). Ultimately, I decided the only way to do it is by going right back to basics. That is, prompts... except normally they're called titles in this context. So, with that off my chest (I have confronted the beast)...

What is History?

History is about knowing how the past helped to create the now. Despite history's being forever trapped in the unknowable past, that's what I see it as being about when you get down to it. History is just another way of understanding the now, just through the lens of the past. It can't ever obtain an objective truth or, in some cases, determine that one truth is worth more than the other. It can't ever, truly, reconstruct how things were. It can, however, reach enough of these things that it can a) provide interest in an exploration of what is almost a fantastic world (i.e. the past: even yesterday is the fantastic) and, as such, has appeal of its own, and b) the aforementioned lens of the past thing. That, to my mind, is sufficient to deal with oft levelled charges of "What is the point?" It also shows that history is something that requires imagination and, as a consequence of that, must necessarily involve narrative. Horrible Histories takes an interesting approach in that it takes a very clear view on what people want to read about... it appeals to the same morbid fascination that makes crime such a powerfully attractive setting for fiction. However, it does rather go with a more names and dates sort of thing despite this clear choice of narrative. History's not like that. It involves understanding relationships and perspectives. History is a wordier subject but it is not one that involves copious (rote) memorisation.

History really involves constructing and understanding arguments and research. To do the former you need the latter. You also need to be able to understand and recognise relationships and perspectives. Those abilities have wider life applicability, but they're also very important in historical research. Whether you're looking at primary or secondary evidence you need to know how it all ties in, as well as understand where it is coming from. Obviously the view of a colonial settler is going to differ to the view of an existing resident. That doesn't mean only one of them has something valuable to say. In this sense, history, like statistics or economics, helps people in democracies understand when the cards are being played deceptively. While history isn't about great men and women, it is useful for everyone to know how things became the way they are. When you think about it, a lot of our political views are really observations informed by our values and often this leads us to conclusions that we find, on some level, contradictory or disagreeable (the former in the sense that we hold opinions that don't tally with our internal self images, the latter in that we find ourselves being attacked). History can help us move pass these contradictions and disagreements by showing us how these observations came to be. For instance, I used to be quite rigidly opposed to Maori and Pasifika assemblies in schools... a cursory glance at history tells one why they exist and what their role is. In other words, understanding history allows us to make proper observations rather than just observe shadows on the wall.

In short, history exists because it provides both interest and a valuable perspective on the now.

What is History Not?

As a subject, it's not some long list of names, dates and other factoids. Facts, by themselves, are trivial in the minds of university lecturers. That doesn't sound good, but the reality is that facts are trivial in literally any subject that you care to name. How facts are linked... that is, information... and used is so much more important for anything. That brings us back to history being about relationships. Think of an English essay in school. The quotes are facts, the supporting materials used to sustain the argument/interpretation... the proof. That is the role of facts, they are not the subject itself. While Horrible Histories is fun, ultimately it just reinforces this perception that History is names and dates. It really isn't and, in fact, is quite a meaty subject... as opposed to something like the University of Auckland's Statistics 10X course: History is something one can dig one's intellectual teeth into.

History also isn't the story of great men and women. Take, for instance, a chess game. My moves affect those of the other player and vice versa. In real life, there are many, many people are involved in each movement of a pawn on that board. Some have somewhat more influence than others but, ultimately, everyone is (to mix metaphors) a leaf in a storm caused by the wings of a butterfly. The actions of a dictator are, ultimately, influenced to some extent by events beyond their control. They are, in effect, playing chess against the aggregate of millions. It's not a chess game either... while people can be treated as pawns, everyone isn't embroiled in some game that has this inexorable end. Like evolution, history doesn't have some wider game plan that it's trying to achieve. The now we know is no more inevitable or the point of everything before it than humans are the end objective (the goal) of evolution. Both also share long term trends in the sense that each species' developmental history can be very roughly paralleled with historical patterns. Basically, I am disagreeing with anyone who says we can understand history as the story of democracy or liberty, for instance. The modern values of the English speaking world arose as part of a unique chain of events. You can't understand Magna Carta of 1215 as some starting point (or, indeed, a point) in a movement towards democracy . You can understand it as something which has importance in understanding how we have the modern democracies that we enjoy (largely via Sir Edward Coke's relation to it). It's somewhat subtle as a difference but it's quite important.

It's probably apparent that I also disagree with the assertion that history repeats. History doesn't: nothing is that similar. We can look at, say, Hitler and Napoleon and say, "Yep, pretty much the repeat" but the reality is the strokes to make the picture look like that are too broad to have any meaning. The two World Wars are even better. You can, and I feel as if many do, think of them as the original and the repeat but despite being very different it's also better to think of WWII as being the second period of conflict in a thirty year's war in the 20th Century. History only repeats in trivially broad senses. What we learn is how the now is built up from the past. We can understand and recognise why things happened the way they did and how people thought, at least to some meaningful degree. We can't learn to recognise which things are the same and which are not. If two events were to share quite similar causes, we must recognise that the reasons why those causes are different. History isn't locked in some cycle. Say, two wars erupt over the independence of a sub-national region, eighty years apart. Say that there was a third war like that earlier again. Are these three repeats? No. The ends of each of the other wars must be considered as important causes in the second two. Already we've reached some sort of really meaningful distinction that only a broad brush such as "three wars of independence" ignores. The second may have been sparked by religious upheaval, the third by famine or deprivation. When you understand that history is about knowing how the now came out of the past, you'll get why a historian is sceptical of any claims of repetitive history.

What is the lot of History in New Zealand's Society today?

It's a non-compulsory subject and one which isn't particularly popular. In primary schools it's almost exclusively boring little worksheets which are all the same for Waitangi day and are what you do before school starts properly. Important historical commemorations were, disgustingly in my view, Mondayised by the greedy little pricks known as my fellow citizens, who view our public holidays as being either days off or extra-pay rather than days which mark important dates. NZ has a nice national myth where we're happily bicultural (clue, we never were) and no wars have been fought in NZ (ignoring that there were many pre-European Maori conflicts, the NZ and Musket Wars are largely forgotten). As a consequence of this you really have to look for historical landmarks. Perhaps most tellingly, history is treated as a pathway subject... something you do only because you have to if you want to do something else. I have some non-researched and somewhat conspirational views on why this is the reality we experience (much to my regret).

To a large extent it comes back to how New Zealand became the society we know today. In a few short words it goes: Maori colonisation, early European contact, Treaty of Waitangi, war, physical European dominance (Belich's substantive authority), Gallipoli, time, Maori renaissance, now. Incorporating history into the country's curricula more solidly just can't be done now without NZ history popping up and this raises some interesting problems. In the same breath we also explain why NZ history isn't all around and celebrated in the same way that we might see in the heavily mythologised and heroised USA (which is also bad, for different reasons). For earlier colonial governments, NZ history revealed the shaky legitimacy behind its authority. In fact, for a long time, localised initiatives were what made history be remembered (and these events were usually still fresh). For later governments, it was really too late for that to matter and Maori were so marginalised that the history was always going to be the one way. Towards the end of the 20th Century, though, and that's beginning to change. You've got the broader Maori Renaissance going on and you've also got some revisionism going on in NZ's historiography... most of which was right. Suddenly NZ history becomes something that cannot ignore that shaky legitimacy and it also becomes something where the protagonists are frequently Maori. This all sounds rather conspirational (you can tell because it barely makes sense) but my gut feeling is that this hypothesis is correct. For early governments, history needed ignoring. For middling governments, the historiography was now favourable. For later society?

Let's talk about that later society. That's sort of where we are now. In my experience, history is one of those subjects where people want to feel some sort of connection. If the protagonists are identifiable, younger members of society are more involved. When most history in primary schools happens right at the start of the year, just before schools shut again, and revolves around something that somehow ends up as Maori history rather New Zealand history and most pupils aren't Maori? It doesn't look good. When you factor in that this history is mostly worksheets, you get a perfect storm that just makes people disinterested or opposed to history in general and NZ history in particular. Whatever anyone says, NZ's still got some serious issues around racism to deal with and what we're doing with the Waitangi Tribunal (poorly understood as it is) just isn't helping. We need a new way but that's irrelevant. This, to my mind, is why history isn't really taken up in large numbers when it's something that is on the cards.

How Should History Be Taught?

Thematically and individually. However, before you get to secondary pupils need grounding in some broader history. As such, my view is that we should have something that looks like this.

New Entrants: the current Waitangi Day worksheet approach is okay, here pupils are still grasping the basics.
Year 1: same as above. This is also usually the first full year as well and the Treaty is important.
Year 2: we can be more ambitious now. However, I think three worksheets are sufficient as this is still really young. Discuss pre-European, Waitangi Day and early European history.
Year 3: broaden the previous years understanding and discuss the two world wars, with particular focus on WWI as it is more poorly understood.
Year 4: it's time to compare and contrast Waitangi Day with the histories of national days in other countries, in particular Australia (close), France and the USA (these two are quite internationally important). Also look at Armistice Day and other commemorations similar to ANZAC Day. Maybe try and chuck a non-Western national day in there.
Year 5: it's time to look at why New Zealand was colonised. Waitangi Day in more depth.
Year 6: pre-New Zealand Europe and a quick run through of English history. Maybe more emphasis on the latter, depends how much of the former overlaps with the previous.
Year 7: look at some Chinese and Japanese history, and finish with particular emphasis on the roles of Japan in WWI and Japan and China in WWII.
Year 8: there are four terms so do Pre-European New Zealand & Waitangi Day; WWI and its causes in brief; WWII and the Cold War; and Wars in the Middle East since 1945. To be clear, history is not the story of warfare either, it's just something simple to look at.

Naturally, because this is all primary school other topics can be tied in here. Reading and grammar can look at the rich variety of texts relevant to historical topics. In this sense, it's really about finding enough time to include history to the extent that pupils can enter secondary school knowing some important world and national events. This is more names and dates because that's what education is at this stage. Building blocks. In some sense, my list may be too repetitive and too Eurocentric. Maybe do some Pacific or Asian history at the end of year eight instead or do that and combine WWI and WWII and move the Middle East unit forwards. In some other sense, what really matters is that the topics are at least 60% directly relevant to NZ and the other stuff (whatever it is) big enough to be able to link it in with other topics easily. Including WWI is very important. Making sure it's not just Gallipoli is even more important.

Now, as these years have social studies...

Year 9 & 10: I think it's really important to include a unit on the Industrial Revolution and the history of trade since 1800 or so at some stage here. Otherwise it's just about making sure topics chosen aren't just about geography and that they're treated in a largely similar way to how NCEA level history is. In this sense, year ten should include two eight or ten week topics. One like level one geo and the other like level one history, on top of my Industrial Revolution and trade one.

Now, what did I mean by thematically? Well, you'll notice that above that at no point do I suggest something like running through from Rome to the end of WWII. Thematic history takes a theme and studies it through a number of different historical events. I think, and this is something we didn't do, that this is quite useful. At university, the history courses I've done have both tried to do that big chronological timeline. However, they've done it in such a fashion that the exam questions are thematic or individual. That is, when you're doing the study for the exam you look at everything that's been studied and unify it under a theme like "industrialisation" or "power". This thematic angle was also sort of utilised by NCEA classical studies with things like "power and freedom" or "political and ideological change" but they were used in individual topics. A thematic course would study maybe three or four important historical topics linked by a theme and then the pupil would need to understand that theme. Scholarship history is very thematic. The theme I had related to historiography.

In contrast, individual study is what NCEA history is big on. This basically means taking a reasonably big but still constrained topic like Black Civil Rights in the USA or The Rise of the Third Reich and studying them in depth. This is another way of getting the relationships side of history out. By looking at topics in depth you can garner a better understanding of causes, consequences and themes in them. Hey, maybe do themes as a meta course.

I don't believe massive chronological lists with a great many topics or even just a great many topics are good for historical study. Great for background context, crap way of teaching the subject.

If this post has seemed in any way disjointed, this is what happens when you reuse paragraphs written for different purposes. The title refers to history consisting of some part people, some part animals and some part food. Or, maybe, I just liked the sound.

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