Sunday 30 December 2012

History Is What You Make It

In The Mail there was an article about what might be taught in History and in particular those might be held up to the young as Great People and perhaps examples to us all.  The piece contrasted a politically correct selection with one that listed The Usual Suspects.

One problem is what people were “Great” for.  The Duke of Wellington, for example, for his victories against Napoleon.  What is left out of his career often is his learning curve in India, his spell as an unlucky Prime Minister and that his military successes were based on a mastery of logistics that few could emulate.

The trouble is that given the time available and the huge amount to choose from any history taught is going to be highly selective and its emphasis dependent on who drafts the curriculum to be taught and in the classroom how a teacher might interpret that.

On the channel PBS from the USA there has been a four part documentary on Queen Victoria and the British Empire.  All in all it took around four hours of screen time.  It did try to explain the era, maintain something of a balance and suggest that it was a good deal more complicated than many assume. 

Also, it was free of the usual bossy presenters we see so much of and the tiresome bang crash wallop computer game imagery whenever violence or war happens.  It did make clear that there were nasty and distressing events but spared us the gore in favour of the narrative.

Even so, despite the attempt to “cover the bases” there was a great deal left out and some simplification.  In a way it asked the intelligent viewer to fill in the gaps but it would take a lot of previous knowledge to know what was involved and understand.

One interesting feature, for example, was how Prince Albert, her Consort who became guide and principal adviser steered her from one view of Empire , that of power and glory, to another based on trade and moral imperatives exported to the world.  After his death under Disraeli’s influence she reverted to the former.

So who was advising and supporting Prince Albert and who were they connected to?  This is something I have come across recently and it had some surprises.  One is Colonel, later General, Charles Grey, his Private Secretary from 1846 to 1861, Albert’s death, who then became Victoria’s until his death in 1870.

Former the Colonel of the 71st Highlanders, mark that, he was a younger son of Charles, 2nd Earl Grey, the reforming Prime Minister from 1830 to 1836.  Henry, 3rd Earl Grey, his elder brother, had been Secretary of State for the Colonies and another brother Frederick Grey rose to be head of the navy.  Look around their political circle and you can see where Prince Albert was coming from.

But you will not find any of this in any school or even university text.  They deal with other ideas and opinions and the complex realities of this period are lost to them and their students.  So what of history today?  Do we tell the same old tales of one kind or another, or do we look at our world now and deal with the relevant history?

In the UK today our lives seemed to be governed by sport, the media and our economy by the predominance of financial services.  Yet there is little or no suggestion of putting them into school history.  Also, what about the history of energy supply instead of just talking about the old coal mining industry?  Probably, there is hardly anyone around capable of teaching these.

What, for example, if Women’s History was more entertainment based rather than the usual collection of worthies?  Centred perhaps on Gracie Fields, Marie Lloyd, Lily Langtry, Maria Malibran, Sarah Siddons and Nell Gwyn it would be a lot more interesting in many ways.

The history of sport itself would overlap with politics.  Why shouldn’t John Gully be numbered amongst the Great, along with W.C. Grace, Fatty Foulkes, Prince Oblensky and Dixie Dean?  For many of our leaders politics was just another form of sport only less enjoyable.

As for finance, Oscar Wilde’s dismissal of The Fall of the Rupee may have seemed to be witty, but it had crucial implications for the whole future of British India and for some us it began the political process leading to Independence.  Who can deny the impact of some of the Great Crashes of history?

The debate has only just begun and it will never finish.

1 comment:

  1. History for children under the age of 14 should be interesting and informative. I have a 50 year-old set of Churchill's History of the English Speaking Peoples. Contains everything the average English 14 year old needs to know. Lots of easy stuff to learn.