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History as Narcissism

by James Bowman

Posted: Oct 01, 2012 06:41 PM

Terry Deary is a British author of children’s books that go under the collective title of "Horrible Histories." They pick out comic or gruesome or disgusting nuggets of historical anecdotes calculated to appeal to a juvenile sensibility in order, allegedly, to interest the little dearies in history. But of course what interests them about such stories is not the history but that which transcends it, namely a perennial childish delight in outraging their own desire to be "nice" according to parental instruction. Mr Deary, who touts himself as "a doctor of education," was chosen by the London Daily Telegraph recently as a spokesman for History when the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, betrayed an embarrassing ignorance about one or two once fairly well-known facts about his country’s storied past on the David Letterman show.

What the British Prime Minister was doing on the David Letterman show in the first place was supposedly promoting British exports, but as he followed there his prime ministerial predecessor-but-one, a present and a former President of the United States and the Mayor of London, it is safe to say that the show has become a necessary stopover for politicians (or ex-politicians) who aspire to become celebrities. Dr. Deary’s point was to scold the numbskulls of the media who gloated over the Prime Minister’s embarrassment for thinking history was a matter of mere facts. He had no time for such Gradgrinds. "The joy of history is like the joy of reading fiction," he wrote, " — stories about people. The way they behaved is a model of how we could behave now."

That would explain, I suppose, any amount of ignorance about King John, whose signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede Mr Cameron didn’t know of, or didn’t remember — though Dr Deary says that the King, who was most likely illiterate, didn’t sign it but merely put his seal on it. As for the author of Rule Britannia (Thomas Arne), another prime ministerial lapse, "Who cares?" writes Dr. Deary. "He’s dead and it’s a nasty, xenophobic, outdated rant anyway." So although the good Doctor insists that the aim of the historian is to answer the question, "why do people behave the way they do?" he apparently excludes from such people the sailors of Nelson’s Navy, and Nelson himself for that matter. The only people he is interested in are those he calls "role models" — and merely patriotic ones are "outdated."

As for historical facts, "If education is about preparing us for ‘life’, then knowing that Magna Carta was signed at Runnymede doesn’t really pay the gas bill, does it? Knowing that the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066 doesn’t improve your parenting competence, your ability to cook, your proficiency in driving or any of the other essential skills you need to survive these days." Well, let’s not dwell on how such proud, Philistine ignorance in an educator would once have been scandalous and self-discrediting. There is certainly no surprise anymore in finding that it is now out and proud. What we need to hold on to is that it is part of a larger de-historicizing of history which has probably proceeded even further in the US than it has in Britain.

The often-cited ignorance of America’s youth (like Britain’s) of basic historical facts — only 12 per cent of high school seniors are proficient in American history, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress of 2010 — is really just symptomatic of a larger cultural insouciance about the past. When fiction, drama and the movies all treat history more or less as Dr. Deary does, it is hardly surprising that increasing numbers of historians and history teachers do too. That’s also why, as David McCullough says, many textbooks are now "so politically correct as to be comic." It is obviously useful to decry facts when you propose to write history based on political fantasy, but it is also an updated version of what Sir Herbert Butterfield called "The Whig Interpretation of History" — by which he meant the practice of writing history as if it were nothing but a prelude to the enlightened progressivism of today and as if the only interest the people of the past could have for us lay in the extent to which they succeeded in resembling ourselves. It’s history, in other words, as narcissism. No wonder the kids aren’t interested.

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