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23 July 2003Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Stuck in the present
The attempt to make history familiar takes it further away.

by Josie Appleton

If the past is a foreign country, some history students seem to be finding it difficult even leaving their home town.

A survey from History Today magazine has discovered that new students find nineteenth century history 'unappetisingly strange' - opting instead to tread the paths of the twentieth century that they covered at A-level. Their focus is on familiar morality tales of 'men with moustaches' - 'twentieth century dictators in general and Hitler in particular' (1).

History tutors also express dismay at their students' lack of language skills, which means that all foreign texts have to be translated. King Alfred's College, Leeds, and the University of the West of England even reported that 'students who do have language qualifications are reluctant to use, or even to admit to possessing, them'.

And the history book itself is going out of fashion. John Gooch from Leeds University says that very few A-level students have read 'even one history book all the way through'. And they can do pretty well without, it seems - Gooch says that one candidate for an academic post at Leeds admitted to having worked solely from duplicated notes as an undergraduate, without opening the pages of a book.

Instead, there is a preference for more bite-sized, experiential media, like TV history programmes or websites. Apparently, TV provides a model for what students expect from their university courses, as something involving 'colour, action, biography and narrative'. There are complaints that students see history as 'basically a narrative, descriptive subject', and 'expect to be told stories rather than acquire the skills of the historian'.

A number of reasons have been offered to explain these trends. Historian David Starkey blames a combination of factors: 'the young are reading less', he says, and the A-level history syllabus is 'a catastrophe' (2). Others blame the general preference for multimedia and TV over books, or a wider decline in standards in higher education.

No doubt these influences are important - but there is something else going on here, too, in terms of the way our society views the past. It is increasingly demanded that history be made 'relevant' to today, and seen as a kind of extension of everyday experience. This is perhaps why students see the strangeness of the nineteenth century as 'unappetising', rather than as a challenge.

When we talk about far-off times, they are often seen in the comfortable and familiar terms of the present. So everything from the Crusades to the English Civil War is discussed in terms of modern notions, such as prejudice or genocide. The UK government's Holocaust Memorial Day attempts to discuss the Holocaust in the light of everyday experiences of bullying and bigotry. The teachers' pack for children suggests a number of different suggested 'reflections', or themes for assemblies - including 'being different', 'being in a foreign country without a family' and 'individual responsibility' (3).

The specific context that led to the horror of the Holocaust is ignored. Students are encouraged to talk, not about Europe in the 1930s and 40s, but the way that they relate to each other in the playground. The Holocaust Memorial Day Working Group said that: 'We are all individually responsible to ensure that we are active citizens and do not stand by while others are being victimised or persecuted.' It would be of little surprise if kids saw the Holocaust as something like calling people names (but worse), and Hitler as something like a bad guy on a film (but worse).

The threat of death is impossible to convey through noise and lights
We can see this trend in museums and galleries, too - where real artefacts and historical explanation are often sidelined by 'experiential' displays. Here the past is not something we can approach by examining its battered remnants, but something that we are encouraged to see, hear and smell.

At the Imperial War Museum in London, there is a 'blitz experience', a 'trench experience' and a '1940s House exhibition' - all complete with sounds, lights and smells to help recreate the sense of life at those times. The museum offers trips for schoolchildren, where an 'actor interpreter' will show them around the exhibition (4).

Walking around these exhibitions, it's easy to feel that you have the past at your fingertips, that you are getting a more complete view of things that you could by looking at an air-raid helmet, propaganda posters, or letters soldiers wrote home from the front. But in reality, these kinds of experiential exhibitions make history less, not more, accessible.

For a start, it's impossible to recreate the experience of the past. The main business of the First World War 'trench experience' - killing and the threat of death - is impossible to convey through noise and lights. The noise and lights derive not from history, but from the present manipulations of Imperial War Museum curators. Rather than getting a 'real taste' of the past, we're just at the mercy of other people's pictures of what it might have looked like.

Anyway, experiencing an event does not mean understanding it - most participants in the First World War were probably confused and scared. Our distance from the war should also be an advantage, because we are able to step back from it and consider it in the light of subsequent events.

It is through a rational consideration of the evidence that we are best able to approach an understanding of the past - and this evidence will suggest conclusions that are not 'relevant', that don't fit in with today's assumptions. To learn how soldiers felt in trenches, we should read their letters - rather than pretend we are in a trench. The Crusades and the Holocaust should be investigated in their own terms, rather than seen as just another version of prejudice or discrimination.

If we study artefacts, documents and history books, and ask the right questions of them, we can grasp something of what history was like. In doing this, we bring it within the purview of our present understanding.

If we try to see it all in terms of images, stories and colours, then everything seems comfortable and familiar. But in reality, the past then really does become a foreign country.

(1) History Today, July 2003

(2) 'History students learn more from TV than books', 21 July 2003

(3) See Preaching the Holocaust, by Louise Fahey

(4) See the experience of war section of the Imperial War Museum website

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