The High Horse

Daire O'Criodain

The Oxford historian, AJP Taylor, enjoyed a high public profile around the middle of the last century because of frequent broadcasts on BBC radio and television, at a time when the latter medium was becoming an established feature in British homes. Taylor had the rare gift of being as good a storyteller as he was a scholar.

Ahead of his time in media awareness, he was of his time in other ways. For example, this (private) reflection on another participant in a 1944 radio discussion: “Barbara Ward is, for a woman, very clever; and with the sort of charm which a clever woman has. That is she has everything a woman can have except what a woman ought to have.” He wouldn’t enjoy a long studio career nowadays.

Taylor captured his attitude to his discipline in a 1946 book review in The Manchester Guardian  “The only danger to history today is that historians are sometimes too modest and try to find excuses for their task. It is safer as well as sounder to be confident. 

Men write history for the same reason they write poetry, study the properties of numbers, or play football – for the joy of creation; men read history for the same reason that they listen to music or watch cricket – for the joy of appreciation.” Women, it seems, didn’t write or read history at all!

By implication, Taylor was rejecting the notion that history has a functional or utilitarian value, while rejecting even more forcibly the notion that it had no value at all.

There was a lot of criticism of the Department of Education’s decision (now under review) that History should cease to be a “core” subject on the Junior Cert curriculum. History’s normal travelling companion; Geography, was also downgraded. The Department’s case was straightforward. It squeezed the number of obligatory subjects to expand students’ optionality in choosing their overall subject menu.

President Higgins expressed “deep and profound concern”, for two reasons. 

First, “a knowledge and understanding of history is intrinsic to our shared citizenship” and their absence leaves one “permanently burdened with a lack of perspective, empathy and wisdom”. Second, the lack of historical training; “the careful and necessary capability to filter and critically interpret a variety of sources” leaves citizens ill-equipped to evaluate the “information” presented to them, often without regard to historical perspective or even truth.

A third issue is scepticism about the Department’s claim that expanding choice at the expense of compulsion is better for all students. 

This might be true in private schools that can afford to maintain a broad and deep teaching “infrastructure”. But, in public schools, once history is made optional for the junior cycle, the pressure for limited resources will risk it becoming extinct altogether in many schools.

I “buy” the last as a genuine concern, but its force as a concern relies significantly on the validity of the more fundamental arguments that knowledge of history and training in historical interpretation are essential rather than merely worthwhile subject “offerings” in secondary schools.

Contradictory generalisations about history are numerous. 

Perhaps the most famous and relevant to this debate is Santayana’s: “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” 

Superficially, it seems obvious and unanswerable that knowledge of the past is an essential tool for navigating the future.

But, like any rear view mirror, it is an unreliable guide about what is in front of us. What counts as historical “truth” and its “lessons” for contemporary decision making are endlessly disputable. Analysing the past can help us avoid pitfalls, but it can equally constrain rational policy formulation. For example, the weight of perceived history is arguably more of a force for stagnation and ossification in the North than a dynamic for peace and prosperity.

Marx deserves consideration alongside Santayana. “Philosophers have merely interpreted the world. The point is to change it.” For “Philosophers”, substitute “Historians”.

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