Tuesday, 14 December 2010


* Watsonworks 18

December 2010

Comments on Simon Sharma’s claim that
history teaches us who we are

*Digging among the skeletons
Tony Williams reviews the incendiary work of
Barbara Kingsover

Shama says history is good for us
Writing in the Guardian, TV culture and history pundit Simon Shama makes a powerful case for the study of history in schools, and links this to the current situation Britain finds itself in. History, Shama argues, teaches us about who we are; it reminds us, in case we have forgotten, what our identity was and remains, while offering a framework in which young people can find relevance for themselves and the national community to which they belong.

Says Shama in ‘Kids need to know they belong’ 9 November 2010, ‘even during the toughest trials it’s our history that binds us together as a distinctive community in an otherwise generically globalised culture’. The ‘understanding of the identity of us’ is ‘not the uncritical genealogy of the Wonderfulness of Us’; quite the contrary, history is about inquiry which resists and probes ‘national self-congratulation’.

Children, argues Shama, need history the most: ‘Unless they can be won to history, their imagination will be held hostage in the cage of eternal Now: the flickering instant that’s gone as soon as it arrives’.

Fact and fiction
Would a historian such as Shama approve of fiction as history (or history as fiction!): yes; but he backs the case which brought novelists to history in the first place: it is teeming with wonderful stories. Shama confirms that history is ‘so often more astounding than fiction – just as gripping’; and his recommendation is for the reinvention of ‘the art and science of storytelling in the classroom and you will hook your students just as tightly’ as fiction does.

History, whether it is conveyed through fact, analysis, research, seeking and finding, reconstructing, discussion or whether it is presented in fictional form has suffered loss of academic status where it has not disappeared from timetables altogether. The residue of Henry Ford’s alleged comment that ‘History is bunk’ is still with us as is George Santana’s pithy warning that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’.

Joining the debate
Shama’s Guardian article won plenty of support in the paper’s letters column. Head of history at Royal Holloway Sarah Ansari writes that history ‘faces the challenge of justifying its “usefulness”’ and thus the seemingly inescapable definition among some parties that education is entirely instrumental, all about jobs.

Professor Colin Jones, president of the Royal Historical Society, warns of ‘an Anglocentric vision that offers a one-eyed view of the past’. He believes that ‘schoolchildren need to know about the world in which they live and not just the country they inhabit’. He goes on, ‘they need to understand history isn’t only about “who we are” but also very much about who others are (and were) and how we differ from each other’.

In my own fiction I’ve attempted to carry readers out of ‘the country they inhabit’, away from what Colin Jones refers to as ‘the Hitlerlisation and Tudorisation of A-level teaching’ and in to journeys of exploration, including self-exploration, beyond our shores.

The young characters in Sign of the Swallow, my first story, cross Europe to Italy, meet the young Leonardo. Those in The Bull Leapers find themselves in Minoan Crete, prisoners forced to entertain the crowds in the sport of leaping the bulls.

In Legion of the White Tiger (see illustration), the reader joins an expedition from the middle east to the Great Walls of China, while in The Freedom Tree young British volunteers experience the viciousness of civil war in Spain and witness the horrific (and immensely symbolic) bombing of Guernica (the famous tree of freedom, by the way, survived and survives).

‘Surprisingly absent’
Shama selects a few particular events which he believes young people should be aware of and study. In some ways it is an odd choice. There is no mention of Tom Paine and the 19th century struggle to establish a free press, free speech and democracy in Britain; and this, surely, should be preceded by a focus on the rise of the printed word and its impact on Britain and the world.

In another Guardian letter Michael Leigh offers topics ‘surprisingly absent’ from Shama’s list – the Industrial Revolution, the Enclosure Acts ‘and the formation of the working class’, a ‘story that is being repeated today in the developing world, from South America to China and India, and it has never been more important that it is told’.

Five days later, again in the Guardian, James Vernon, professor of history at Berkeley, California, pitches in his dollar’s worth. First, his concern: ‘History, it appears, is not just in retreat in our schools, it is fast becoming a privilege of the privileged’. Blame may be laid at the structures out of which history teaching emerges or, connectedly, the ways in which it is taught, but Vernon reminds us ‘that the way history is taught in schools is itself a product of history’. He states that every generation ‘shapes the teaching of history around its own preoccupations and sense of itself, but these are always changing’.

Powers of analysis
Shama’s list is only a ‘for instance’ but along with others Vernon believes there are ‘conspicious absences of some of the central staging posts of modern European history – the Renaissance, the Reformation and the global missions of European religions’.

On the value of history teaching Vernon is in agreement with Shama, believing in ‘its capacity to reanimate our civil society and produce an engaged and capable citizenry’, but he disagrees with the assertion ‘that good story-telling will get you there’, asserting the importance of indispensable analytical skills, ‘for citizens who want to understand our present conditions’.

There should be no conflict of interest here between study and story; rather the two should be complementary and mutually supportive. Vernon fears history being turned into pure entertainment.

Yet fiction rarely plays history for laughs, and serious stories are more likely to prompt, rather than deflect, or get in the way of, the worthy aim of encouraging young people to ‘think critically and effectively about the world they live in’.

To think critically
Vernon concludes with the warning that history is not for ‘turning schoolchildren into Britons but by enabling them to analyse the present and to think critically when we hear ministers and advisers offering populist solutions to more complex structural problems’.

It follows that keeping history and history teaching out of the hands of politicians is of paramount importance. When ministers talk of ‘our great and glorious past’, they are not necessarily talking about my history or our history but theirs; one is mindful of Dr. Johnson’s comment about patriots and scoundrels and such attitudes as My Country, Right or Wrong. They are for the most part talking propaganda stirred with heaped spoonfuls of the wishful; and propagandists, as Jan Vladislav has said, ‘rely on people having short memories’, risking ‘new generations having no historical memory at all’.



Digging among the skeletons
Tony Williams reviews incendiary work by
Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver takes older readers back to times, places and monstrosities they either passed over or might prefer to forget. She is not afraid to dig among the skeletons, mainly left by the US past and its government’s misdeeds at home and abroad.

We might dimly remember the Congo of the 1960s, Katanga, the brutal murder of the socialist prime minister Lumumba and other atrocities, all for the sake of mineral exploitation and in no small measure orchestrated by the CIA. If it is hazy to us, Barbara Kingsolver brings it all back in The Poisonwood Bible, a fictionalised story of a Southern Baptist missionary family transplanted to carry the word of a protestant Christian faith to a previously happily catholicised jungle folk.

Cultural trespass
The author gives a tragically hilarious account of the total incapacity of the preacher and his family to grasp what they had landed themselves into. This is encapsulated in the title, the misplaced effort of the preacher to say “Christ is Risen” in the local Kisanji language which is the same expression for the poisonous root that spreads everywhere. One of the teenaged daughters is totally at a loss, being suddenly wrenched from her school Prom and dumped in a world without her accustomed Piggly Wigglies stores. It all ends in horror and disaster for the preacher, his children and the people of the Congo.

Trotsky laughs!
Try googling Bonus Army + Tiananmen Square and you will get 5000 hits at last try. Then try Bonus Army Eisenhower Patten MacArthur. Better yet read Barbara Kingsolver’s Lacuna where all will be made clear. This is another of her semi-fictionalised historical accounts, this time set in the Mexico and United States of the 1930s and 1940s. The young Mexican-US hero finds himself in the household of Mexican socialist artist Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo, at the time when they take in the Soviet revolutionary Leo Trotsky, fleeing Stalin’s NKVD assassins. A heavy time and a terrible topic, which does not prevent Kingsolver bringing all these personages to life with great wit and light ascerbity.

Broken promises
One episode takes the hero to Washington D.C. in 1932 where the Bonus Army of US World War I veterans is encamped in a long and peaceful protest to demand the wartime service bonuses they had been promised but never paid. The disciplined protesters with their wives and children are finally dispersed by the army led by General MacArthur, organised by genial Major Eisenhower and slashed by the unsheathed sabres of the cavalry spurred on by the eager Major Patten.

When the protesters reassembled, MacArthur ordered in the tanks to roll over the Bonus Army tents. The media duly reported two or three deaths, but if you read Kingsolver you will decide which version you believe. Socialist literature has never forgotten the Bonus Army massacre, but it seems that everyone else has and I am in debt to the author for Lacuna for shocking me out of forgetfulness. This an unputdownable well-crafted novel, with not a few laugh-out-loud moments. I had never imagined that I would chuckle at wry utterances of Leo Trotsky.

Thanks, Tony. I hope to receive more contributions from you and indeed from any reader signing in to this blog.

TextDisc Watsonworks:
A lifetime’s fascination with the early Renaissance artist PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA
has prompted me to write, over the past few years, a full study of his work – Genius in Context: Piero della Francesca, A Journey Through His Art, complete with illustrations of the majority of Piero’s paintings. These, on screen, have all the clarity and colour that anything but professional printing lacks.

In addition I have focused on one of Piero’s most famous masterpieces. The Flagellation, and compiled an analysis of the various explanations of what still remains a riddle. Masterpiece and Mystery: The Flagellation by Piero della Francesca is a 16-page study, on disc, of a painting that measures a modest 58 x 81centimetres, housed in the Ducal Palace in Urbino. Copies of this are available free to readers (or as an Attachment); orders please through Watsonworks@hotmail.co.uk. The papers are also mentioned on the Facebook page of the PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA SOCIETY (UK).

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