Saturday, April 21, 2007

A Win in the History Wars

William McInnes writing in Saturday's SMH scores (as far as I'm concerned) a small win in the history wars.

Not, of course, that I think calling it the history wars is particularly useful, because at one level only one side is trying to win. That is, those who shout at the other side "relativist" as a form of abuse are trying to win because they think there is "one true history", while the other side is simply saying history is richer than that.

McInnes concludes, after recounting a tale of a caged cockie that says "Hello" to his daughter;

History is many things. For every listener it can be a different tale, just told with the same characters. But it mustn't be bent and shaped to serve the purpose of those who decide that history must be taught.

It can be like a caged bird. Taught to mimic words as a trick. But my daughter is right. History, like that bird, will always try to talk to you. The least we can do is listen.

The piece about history being bent is relevant to both sides of the debate.

For my part I went off to re-read E.H.Carr's What is History? as I got immersed in the history wars (as one does if one is foolish enough to read Quadrant). While the book itself is criticised for its relativism, and hence would be deemed an invalid source by the Quadrant crowd, there are a few points from it that I think are compellingly relevant. These are;

What is a historical fact? There are lots of facts, there is the fact that Adolf Hitler was born on April 20 1889 and the fact that my father was born on 26 December 1921. The former is generally regarded as a historical fact, the latter is not. What makes a "fact" a "historical fact" is that it plays a role in the chosen explanation of the ultimate event - in this case usually something to do with the origins of World War II.

What is historical narrative? A narrative can just be a description of events in order, or it can be a description of events in relation to what caused what. So we have the fact of Hitler's birth and the fact that the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919. The historical narrative exists to weigh the relative importance of these (and other) events as causal bases for another event - WWII.

Which narratives are worth telling? There are an endless series of historical narratives that could be constructed. The ones that are worth telling are those that (like science) are useful, that might help us with the decisions we make today. This is the twin of the aphorism about the need to study history to avoid remaking the errors of the past.

These three together explain why history is a relative not an absolute concept, why there is not "One true history" as Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop would have us believe, nor is it just a collection of "facts."

Most importantly, history will always try to talk to you - the least we can do is listen.

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