The Return of History

Raphael Samuel

The restoration of history to the school ‘core curriculum’, if it takes place, and if it survives the counter-pressures in the Government towards TVEI (Technical and Vocational Educational Initiative), will represent one of the more remarkable pedagogic reversals of our time. The privileged place which the new curriculum gives (in my opinion, quite rightly) to British history is in singular contrast to the implosion which has taken place in English studies, and the abandonment – now endorsed by the National Curriculum Council – of both English literature as a separate classroom subject, and set texts, the ‘cultural heritage’ which it was the special mission of school English to transmit.

For some thirty years the whole tendency of educational reform has been cross-curricular and multi-disciplinary. In the modernising moment of the Sixties, historians, the younger and more ardent spirits at least, were only too anxious to present their work in terms borrowed from other disciplines and even to present their findings as illustrations of theoretic models and truths. ‘Excessive’ specialisation, according to the conventional wisdom of the time, was ‘academic’, divisions in knowledge ‘artificial’, subject-based learning an obstacle to comparative perspective. The winds of change required a frontierless open space, in course design no less than in campus architecture. In the new universities, then the pace-setters for educational innovation, history was absorbed in larger frameworks and organised not in departments but in interdisciplinary schools – ‘Comparative Government’ at the University of Essex, ‘Cultural and Community Studies’ at Sussex. There was a similar pattern at the polytechnics, where from the start single-subject honours degrees were unknown, and where modular courses moved towards a Post-Modernist ‘pick and mix’.

Sociology was a dominant influence on the ‘new wave’ history of the time. In the new cottage industry of urban history, monographs, when they began to appear, typically focused on stratification and social structure. Past and Present, at the apogee of its influence in this decade, treated history as a branch of the behavioural sciences, following the destiny of achievers in Ancient Rome, patterns of leisure in the Industrial Revolution and rituals of riot. The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, which began its official life in 1964, devoted its whole initial effort to establishing the antiquity of the ‘nuclear’ family, testing a well-worn sociological hypothesis against the parish records of births, marriages and deaths. As E.H. Carr put it in 1961, brilliantly anticipating, here as elsewhere, some of ‘new wave’ history’s ruling passions, ‘the more sociological history becomes and the more historical sociology becomes, the better for both.’ Such precepts were still in the ascendant in 1976, when the opening number of History Workshop Journal fired an ill-directed salvo against them.

In the schools, under the influence of the comprehensive movement, the pressures against subject-based teaching were even stronger. In primary schools history was apt to disappear in integrated studies, or was subsumed in such epic titles as ‘Man’ (according to a recent HMI report, only 15 per cent of primary-school children do anything called history); in the secondary schools it was promoted, or protected, as a variant of ‘Humanities’ or World Affairs, while for the less able children it was smuggled in under the rubric of ‘social studies’.

The status of history was also put in doubt by the insistent demand for ‘relevance’, which has been a leitmotiv of curriculum innovation and reform ever since the Robbins and Crowther Reports. In the early Sixties, with a prime minister promising to sweep the ‘dead wood’ from the boardrooms and subject venerable institutions to the ‘white heat’ of modern technology, history carried the stigma of being old-fashioned, and there was a concerted attempt to abandon earlier periods and drag the subject kicking and screaming into the 20th century. As J.H. Plumb, that weathervane of the liberal establishment, put it, when writing of ‘the crisis in the humanities’, ‘few hearts swell with pride in Mosley Road Secondary Modern School at the thought of Magna Carta or Waterloo’; the humanities ‘must ... adapt themselves to ... a society dominated by science and technology’. ‘What is needed is less reverence for tradition and more humility towards the educational systems of those two great countries – America and Russia – which have tried to adjust their teaching to the urban, industrial world of the 20th century.’ The raising of the school-leaving age to 16 and the lowering of the voting age to 18 provided a further rationale for making the school syllabus more contemporary. ‘It is surely far more important,’ Edward Short, Labour’s Minister of Education, told the Association of Education Committees in 1968, ‘for young people to know the facts about Vietnam than it is to know all the details of the Wars of the Roses.’

These modernising tendencies were very much to the fore in CSE, the school-leaving examination introduced in 1964 with the aim of giving every school-leaver some kind of qualification. Economic and social history constituted the record of ‘industrial society’, general history that of the modern world, a subject which happily elided history with the present. Similarly, ‘Modern World History’ had pride of place in the Schools Council History Project, while ‘depth’ studies, though taken from earlier periods, seem to have been chosen for the purpose of structured contrast or analogy with the present. Later versions of ‘new history’ have followed suit, offering a history of ‘now’ and ‘then’, or ‘past’ and ‘present’, rather than a chronological and developmental narrative of befores and afters. Tudors and Stuarts, firm favourites, as a period, in the days of the grammar schools, were reserved for the A-Level syllabus, a last redoubt of traditionalism. Medieval history, the original groundwork for history as a teaching subject in the universities, was relegated to the junior schools, as a picturesque matter for projects rather than a testing ground for analytic skills or a source of serious knowledge.

The new methods of teacher-training instituted in the Sixties may also have helped to make historians uncertain about their subject. Under the PGCE, the graduate qualification required for those taking up posts in secondary schools, teachers were encouraged to think of themselves as ‘educationalists’ rather than specialists; to see their role as an enabling rather than a didactic one, and their subjects as adjuncts to the acquirement of cognitive skills. Content was subordinated to the learning process. The ‘new’ history, or what passes for new history in the schools (a phenomenon of the Seventies), was a product of these pedagogic enthusiasms. It owed its authority to neo-Piagetian notions of ages and stages of child development; it sidestepped the issue of content to concentrate on intellectual and perceptual growth. It did not matter so much what the pupils learned as how they learned it, and whether or not a subject developed ‘concepts’. History was not about the past: it was a mode of ideation. It did not have a story to tell: it had a method to impart.

It is possible, too, that the increasingly hierarchical nature of the teaching profession and greater job mobility have had the effect of undermining the integrity of the subject and devaluing the status of the historian. The introduction of scale posts in 1961, under the Burnham agreement, with no fewer than 39 different status levels ‘each with a specific salary allowance’, and the creation of departmental empires in the comprehensive schools, transformed the structure of the profession, making the knight’s move a normal means of advancement. Instead of history being a job for life, or, to put it more grandly, a vocation, it became a mere stage in the teacher’s career, leading to more indeterminate, but influential positions such as year leader, course co-ordinator, head of humanities, or (latterly) adviser to one of the burgeoning bureaucracies in an increasingly top-heavy profession.

History was attacked from a theoretical standpoint for being ‘empiricist’, or, in that favourite expletive of Sixties campus radicalism, ‘positivist’. It suffered from ‘arrested intellectual development’ and was enslaved to a primitive faith in facts. It practised a naive realism, believing that the evidence spoke for itself, and that the historian had no higher task than to let the documents speak. Whereas sociologists tested hypotheses, refined concepts and offered a self-consciously theoretical analysis, historians remained wedded to the instance, accumulating endless examples and finding exceptions to every rule. Knowledge of the sources was the profession’s substitute for thought. For the more outspoken radicals, and the more rigorous structuralists, knowledge itself, however its boundaries were defined, was suspect, both as an obstacle to systematic thought and as a form of social control. The great object of teaching, as they saw it, was not to transmit knowledge but, in the universities, to equip students with the means of ‘demystifying’ it; in the schools, through ‘discovery’ or child-centred learning, to enable pupils to construct it for themselves. Didacticism, however benevolent its intentions, was inherently authoritarian, knowledge ‘élitist’.

The new history, though it has a long and honourable lineage in the progressive movement in English education, and in the idea of learning by doing, bears the traces of this negative pedagogy. It is deeply suspicious of any claim to teacherly authority. Ideally it would liberate the child from the encumbrances of scholarship, offering a naked confrontation with the sources in place of a history learnt at second or third hand. But since the sources themselves are radically flawed, not facts at all but statements, the object of ‘source evaluation’ is to enable children to see through them, to identify bias, to pinpoint guilty absences, to discover the repressed dialogue beneath the surface discourse, the hidden ideology which even the simplest wording conceals.

In this way, if one looked no further than the school class room and the university seminar, it would seem that history in the Seventies, as in the previous decade, was progressively decentred to the point where its autonomous existence, as a teaching subject or a ‘discipline’, was in doubt. It was extra-murally that new sources of energy were generated and notions of the historical enlarged: in the renaissance of local history and the remarkable growth of local ‘amenity’ societies; in the spread of the museums movement and of ‘history from below’; and not least in Britain’s gathering crisis of national identity.

The restoration of history to the school syllabus, though a testimony to the vitality of history from below, was engineered in the first place from above and as a result of pressure from traditionalists. It owes something to the personal enthusiasm of successive Conservative ministers of education, Keith Joseph, Kenneth Baker and now, it seems (though he is regrettably attached to the idea of famous names and dates), John MacGregor. It owes rather more perhaps to the HMIs, who in a series of reports have drawn attention to the devastating consequences of abandoning history in favour of such invertebrate programmes of study as those which go under the name of Humanities. History has no doubt been helped, too, by the fact that its graduates are so numerous in journalism and the arts, in government and the higher Civil Service, and that they retain affectionate memories of their undergraduate studies (the activities of the HUDG – History at the Universities Defence Group – may have helped to activate this constituency of opinion and to prepare a climate favourable to the claims of history in the schools). Finally, some reference ought to be made to the contribution of the Prime Minister, who, as in her invocation of ‘Victorian Values’ – or her strictures on the French Revolution – is continually calling up shades of the national past. Her interventions in the current debate are widely resented and interpreted in a sinister sense, but historians, while rejecting her precepts, might feel nattered and even encouraged by the attention given to their subject.

But if it is the Right, or traditionalists, who have led the return to subject-based teaching, and who have been most vociferous in affirming the worth of history as a distinctive form of knowledge, it is the Left – or at least the broad mass of historians, in the universities, in the schools and in society at large, dedicated to broadening the subject-matter of history – who have contributed more largely to the vitality of the subject and to its present popular appeal. The recovery of lost tradition – rescuing history’s defeated from ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’ – has been for some thirty years a leading inspiration for what is inadequately called ‘labour history’: in the hands of Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson et al it is more the biography of a class than a narrative or analysis of politics. A similar spirit has animated the study of the intellectual underworld, and the interrelationship of magic, religion and science. Women’s history – in Britain, mostly in the hands of self-proclaimed socialist feminists – has challenged the priority traditionally given to the public sphere and put many of history’s leading categories into question. Scholar-radicals too, in some cases worker-historians, like the printer John Gorman, or the Communist singer Ewan MacColl, pioneered the discovery of industrial folk song – a continuing component in British Pop as well as an important source for the study of mores – and the study of popular imagery. Above all, there has been the growth of oral history, a particularly pertinent influence on the schools. This has made ‘living memory’ a major historical resource and propelled a great deal of teaching towards the present. Oral history has been pioneered in this country largely by socialists (it has a rather different character in its country of origin, the United States): like women’s history, it focuses on the politics of the personal and gives a privileged place to the study of everyday life, or what the German historians working in this vein call Alltagsgeschichte.

In the last thirty years the profession has been quietly but seriously radicalised. ‘History from below’, originally the enthusiasm of a handful of franc-tireurs, is now a central plank of higher research, and is indeed hardly less apparent in the work of the supposedly High Tory Jonathan Clark or the proto-Thatcherite Alan Macfarlane as in the Marxist historians whom they attack. There are now a dozen or more learned journals devoted to it – Past and Present, Social History, History Workshop Journal, Llafur, Gender and History to name but a few. (Rural History, due out shortly, promises to be a welcome addition.) In Medieval history, the peasant land market has replaced seigneurial administration as the focus of research in studies of the agrarian economy, while the history of religion is more likely to start from parish wills than from the study of church and state. John Vincent’s Poll-Books pioneered a history of politics ‘from the bottom up’, though Vincent now seems to prefer the study of prime ministers. ‘History on the ground’, originally almost a personal obsession of W. G. Hoskins and Maurice Beresford, monitoring the lost villages of Medieval England, is now a whole industry: it is the normal starting-point of local history, transforming it from a study of the manor and the parish – the form prescribed by the Victorian County History – into one of the lived environment.

History has also been pushed in a more populist direction by exogenous influences, operating quite independently of the lecture-hall or the classroom. The preservation of the past, which thirty years ago was the province of small bodies of experts, is today a mass activity in which tens of thousands of people play some part. County Record offices, temples for the worship of the archives in the early days of their statutory existence, and the preserve of decayed gentlefolk, local antiquaries and a sprinkling of graduate researchers, are now in some sort popular institutions, with an outreach to the schools and community groups. The manuscript Census returns, which only began to be widely used in the Sixties, are now among local historians’ first ports of call. Family history societies have democratised the study of genealogy: though non-political in character, their sympathies are apt to be popular rather than aristocratic; plebeian ancestry is a matter of pride – not, as in the old days, something to be covered up for fear of losing caste.

In the study of the built environment there is an altogether new respect for vernacular architecture, with as much attention being given to the Victorian industrial terrace, and even to early council estates, as to the Tudor farmhouse or cottage. Do-it-yourself enthusiasms such as industrial archaeology (a term coined only in 1956) have vastly extended notions of heritage, turning the beam-engines of the industrial revolution into national monuments and putting warehouses and factories on a par with cathedrals and stately homes. Reference might also be made to the collecting mania, a by-product of, or a parallel development to, the antiques boom of the Sixties, which has elevated the humblest items of household life – the dolly mop, the birdcage or the firescreen – to the status of objets d’ art. Each of these new sources has served to enlarge notions of the historical, bringing new avenues of inquiry within the ambit of teaching and research and progressively updating our notions of ‘period’.

Although it is an influence which scholars and purists are loath to admit, the restoration of history to the school syllabus and the present vitality of the subject must owe something to the commodification of the past as a source of pleasure and enjoyment. On all sides, the future of history is debated in terms of its purposes: nation-building, character-formation, child-development, according to ideological taste. Yet one of the great arguments for history as a classroom subject is its popularity as a hobby, a holiday pursuit and a form of mass entertainment. The pioneers here were the railway preservationists of the early Fifties, who not only rescued obsolete rolling-stock and narrow-gauge lines, but also – an early exercise in costume drama – dressed up as old-time railway servants. More recently, the vast development of historical or history-based tourism, and the multiplication of visitable shrines – for foreign visitors, Sunday motorists and school trips – has disseminated the idea of a more immediate past: an experience to be shared rather than a remote object of classroom study. Lessons can be learnt from display panels; souvenirs and survivals can give a tactile sense of the past.

It is perhaps symptomatic that the chairman of the History Working Party was neither an academic nor a schoolteacher but the owner of a Norman castle and founder of the Heritage Educational Trust, which uses historical buildings to bring children into a more direct encounter with the past. The most eloquent passage in the working party’s interim report breathed the same spirit: ‘The rough feel of woven cloth, the smells of the stable or of primitive sanitation, the taste of food smoked over the open Fire, the sounds of horses’ hooves on the cobblestone can evoke images as strong as the written or spoken word.’ In a more opportunist and commercial vein – though one close to those ‘marvellous stories’ which were the stock-in-trade of 19th-century children’s books – the promoters of ‘Royal Britain’, the exhibition now lodged at the Barbican, project the night side of ‘living history’.

Wicked stepmothers, executions, massacres and murders. Children will love it. Royal Britain. A great exhibition for people of all ages. From the dark ages to the modern age, ‘Royal Britain’ gives you the chance to experience the lives of all our kings and queens. And with a thousand years of wars, weddings, executions and empire-building, you’ll discover the amazing truth about the most famous family in the world.

The restoration of history to the school curriculum could also be seen as a belated recognition of sea-changes in the national culture – in particular, the crisis of modernity which has afflicted both economy and society in the Seventies and Eighties. Thirty years ago ‘new’ was a word to conjure with, bringing the promise of a more open society, while the past was conceptualised in negative terms, as an incubus to be thrown off, a dead weight on the living, a byword for the dark. Today, with the apparent exhaustion of modernity as a principle of hope, the past typically evokes fears of separation and loss, recalling vanished stabilities or supremacies. The restoration of history to the school curriculum, on this view, is in keeping with the reversal of attitudes that has made conservation and preservation, rather than innovation, the major outlet of the reformist impulse in British life, and the preferred idiom for idealist visions of all kinds. In place of a better future, we use as our critical vantage-point a more immediately accessible past, and it is to make-believe identities in the past rather than the future that we look to find a home for our ideal selves. The return to history, under this optic, appears as a displaced expression of contemporary utopianism.

If there is a single issue which has made history seem more relevant, and more contentious, in recent years it is the emergence of the national question as a storm-centre of British politics. New Commonwealth immigration and settlement, the civil war in Ulster, the recrudescence of Celtic separatism, and Britain’s increasing involvement in the EEC, have made any Anglocentric view of the national past quite untenable, while the increasing uncertainty about both personal and social identities has put a premium on the rediscovery of roots. At a stroke it has made topical and immediate such ancient episodes as the building of Hadrian’s Wall, the conversion to Christianity and the separation from the Celtic Church. It has also made history into a frontline subject for issues of empire and race, and for the question of where the boundaries of Great Britain are to be drawn.

It would be a great misfortune if the return to history were to be accompanied by a revival of those sectarian and know-nothing attitudes to other disciplines and other fields of thought which were so prevalent before the cultural revolution of the Sixties. History has never been autarchic. In its early days the Oxford school was umbilically tied to law, and it was perhaps in deference to this that its central preoccupation was with constitutional developments. The Cambridge school, under the aegis of Sir John Seeley and Lord Acton, was almost as closely tied to political science. In the Edwardian schoolroom the study of history was a branch of ‘Civics’ and closely related to imperial geography. In the Twenties, when ‘learning by doing’ first made its appearance in junior classes, it was much influenced by the Art and Crafts movement, and by League of Nations idealism.

History owes its present vitality largely to forces generated outside itself. The history of the family, as pioneered by the Cambridge Group for the Study of Population, owed its initial procedures to demography and its problematic to sociology. In its more recent development it is being no less deeply marked by contemporary preoccupations with parenthood. Foucault, a wayward cultural historian posing as a theorist, has provided an enormous impetus to work in the fields of medicine and crime, as well as producing new questions about the history of the state and sexuality. Edward Said’s Orientalism, a work in which politics and aesthetics freely mingle, is having a comparable influence on the history of imperialism, and the constitution of Europe’s Others.

It would be a misfortune if, in the interests of standardised attainment tests, the scope of history were to be narrowed. History has always owed its impetus, both as a classroom subject and as a scholarly pursuit, to the sense of discovery. Its truths, whether reached in the course of research, presented at the lectern, or arrived at on a project, typically present themselves as revelations, uncovering what has been hidden from the record. The subject would be cut off from its lifeblood if it were to contract to a uniform grid. We live in an expanding historical culture: new sources of knowledge are being brought into play; new lines of thought are providing research with its adrenalin. The last thirty years have seen a multiplication of sub-disciplines – each with its own subject-matter and time horizons – and a quite extraordinary proliferation of specialist journals. David Cannadine, in an influential but pessimistic article, has argued that this is a sign of the subject’s decadence: that it involves knowing more and more about less and less. I prefer to see it as a sign of history’s generosity, and its readiness to double back on its tracks. Twenty-five years ago, addressing a Past and Present conference not long before Peter Laslett published The world we have lost, Keith Thomas declared: ‘The study of the family in English history has simply not begun.’ Today it is an activity for tens of thousands of people. In the primary schools it competes with Norman castles and Saxon huts for the honour of introducing the youngest children to the idea of the past.

A history that was alert to its constituency would need to address not only the record of the past but also the hidden forces shaping contemporary understandings of it, the imaginative complexes in and through which it is perceived. Teachers, enjoined by ministers to regard themselves as custodians of ‘heritage’, might consider the past as a means of symbolic reassurance, as a source of borrowed prestige. Confronted with the phenomenon of ‘period living’, and the 460,000 houses now listed and statutorily protected as historic, they might point up the way in which the past – or make-believe representations of it – furnishes us with objects of desire. On school trips, negotiating a world of appearances, they might like to speculate on the deceptions of immediacy. And if, following the precepts of the new history, teachers saw their task as training children in the use of sources, they might find costume drama or romantic fiction more appropriate for critical viewing or reading than pre-selected documents or graphics.

If history is an arena for the projection of ideal selves, it can also be a means of undoing and questioning them, offering more disturbing accounts of who we are and where we come from than simple identifications would suggest. As an intellectual discipline, history requires a degree of detachment: the ability to draw contrasts and make connections, to discover a principle of order in the midst of seeming chaos, to explain, or attempt to explain, the whys and wherefores of apparently mysterious acts, to think the unthinkable. As a form of inquiry it is a journey into the unknown. As a classroom subject, it is supposed to broaden the mind, to challenge the commonplace assumptions of everyday life by showing the contingency of much that we regard as natural and permanent, the modernity of much that we mistake as traditional, the antiquity of much that passes for new.

One of the appeals of history is that it can allow an escape from self. In Carlyle’s words, it gratifies an appetite for the wonderful; in Herbert Spencer’s phrase, recalling his boyhood reading, it ministers to the ‘epical’ sense. All this is particularly relevant to children, who are much more used to imagining alternative worlds than adults. History may start from the known and the familiar, as it does in many primary schools today, where projects such as ‘Grandmother’s Washing Day’ are classroom favourites. But children seem equally at home with, or excited by, the exotic: Christians thrown to the lions, slaves building pyramids. They have a morbid interest in the horrors and cruelties of the past – cruelties to children in particular – which, whether in the form of the Princes in the Tower, or the little hurriers down the mines, have long occupied a regular place in the outlines and primers. The popularity of Blackadder, cult-viewing for ten and 11-year-olds, testifies to the love of the comic and the grotesque. We may go to the past in search of ideal ancestors, but history would be a dull subject to teach if we peopled it with likenesses of ourselves.