Wednesday, 16 July 2008


I love history—I teach it, in fact—and it is one of the things that I most enjoy about Europe. You see old things everywhere, and I don’t just mean in the pews. Within the bounds of the Adur Valley parish are some twelve or so mediæval churches (most of them either Saxon or Norman, which is to say getting on for a thousand or so years old) plus a ruined castle, an Iron Age hill fort (Chanctonbury Ring), and another Iron Age hill fort (Cissbury ring) nearby. The wall in my garden is at least hundreds of years old, and is probably older than the USA. I really feared I would pine for ‘real’ history, and find the relatively modern buildings the Americans think of as historical, well, boring, and perhaps faintly laughable. I think I did this because of the reaction of many Americans in Europe, and I have known many of these. ‘Golly; this kinda puts our history into the shade’. I usually mutter something about actually European history being as much their history as ours, which it is, and change the subject.
But here in the States, I have found their history just as fascinating, to my surprise. One simply adjusts ones scales and proportions a bit. History is about where people came from, not how long it took. In this sense, whether the matter is ten years or a thousand is far less important that I thought. The US is rightly interested in its history, and I too am finding it interesting.
Which leads me to wonder something else. Older Americans tell me how, when they were at school, they studied European history, rather than American. Now it’s American, not European. This creates a couple of problems. The first is an ignorance of much human history before the Pilgrim Fathers (except the doings of some Indian tribes), and a lot after it. There is also the very real problem of how to fill up the teaching hours. I wonder if this is where ‘social history’ began to take the place of ‘battles and dates’ history. If there aren’t enough battles and kings to fill a syllabus, then, because nature abhors a vacuum, you are going to have to fill it up with the study of the oppression of women in Nantucket before 1900, or something. And because if America sneezes, the UK catches cold, the same process naturally finds its way to the UK in due course. So, we have seen in the UK 'social history' replacing much more interesting history-history. It is less likely to find enthusiasts, I think, though it may produce more sociologists.


gemoftheocean said...

Depneds who is writing the social history. If one is talking about "customs" and common place ways of life, it can be very interesting. OTOH, if you have a bunch of leftist "whack jobs" teaching "courses" in "the history of lesbianism" or some such claptrap - steer clear.

I know one of my professors (who was the grandson of SC Justice Charles Evans Hughes) was a noted scholar in European Intellectual history - and didn't think much of such claptrap. The rot started in the late 60s early 70s not enough time for it to have invaded my own campus. But similar BS was already starting to manifest itself in the literature departments...which is why I switched from Lit to History.

BTW, we DID study US history at what you would call "school" [i.e. pre tertiary level] at minimum the one required class across all states is a year of US history, plus quite often another course in "problems in democracy course" i.e. Civics. The interested also might study World history for a year, and also "Western Civ." [-- so in my case I had 4 years. of high school history + a year of state history in the 8th grade (in my case Penna.
plus in 3rd through 7th grade I also had history every year - mostly US.) Then in the university, even though I concentrated in European history, I was also required to take 3 upper division courses in one other history interest area, and 2 in another and all total 18 upper division classes. We were on academic quarters at UCSD. For those going on to graduate studies in same one or two foreign langs. also required, depending what the field of concentration was in. Plus the normal distribution requirements in other subject, ol you wouldn't come out so overbalanced in one area that a chemist would come with a sheepskin and not knowing what a flute looked like and a history major knew that two plus two didn't equal 5, at least not for normal values of |2|.

GOR said...

Your mention about what history older Americans had studied brought back some memories, Father. Before coming here I knew little about American history.

Growing up in Ireland in the 1950s we didn't study much about America. It was mostly European History and Irish History. And in Irish History, only until 1916! The Civil War in Ireland was not treated, except to note that we had one. I guess memories were still raw with many people remembering or being a part of it, that the subject was basically taboo in schools back then.

Since being in the US I have learned a lot more of the country's history and, in particular, The American Civil War. That has fascinated me. The sheer numbers involved, the battles, the loss of life and the effects on the country - which are still being felt today.

But it is a fascination tinged with sadness. Paraphrasing historian Shelby Foote, what Americans do best is compromise, but they failed to do that in the 1860s and it was a war that should never have been fought

gemoftheocean said...

Gor, you can't "compromise" on slavery. And no matter what "they" tell you, it was about that issue. Lincoln said "A house divided can not stand" and he was right.

GOR said...

GOTO: The compromise Shelby Foote talked about was not that slavery should be still permitted on some basis, but that the matter should have been possible of resolution without resorting to all-out war.

Lincoln's main concern was not about slavery per se, but about The Union - preserving the country as one. He also said that if he could save The Union without slavery, he would do it, but if he could only save The Union with slavery, he would do that also!