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Sunday, December 04, 2011

On Historical Perspective and the Decadence of the Modern Age

"Conspiracy theory is the sophistication of the ignorant." - Richard Grenier

***

"Without some historical perspective, we wouldn't fully understand what the real problems of today are.

And one of the ways in which I think that is true is that much of the discussion about history teaching in schools today thinks that there has been a catastrophic decline from some sort of Golden Age of History in an earlier time, an earlier time interestingly never actually specified. And that on that basis, draconian measures are needed to try to retrieve what appears to be a catastrophic situation.

One of the things, of course, that we were able to check out as we looked into the history of the teaching of history in English State School classrooms from the 1900s on, in terms of the nature of the teaching, in terms of the number of people studying History, in terms of the exams, in terms of the textbooks. One of the things we were able to check out, was whether there was in fact a Golden Age when everybody knew the reigns of all the Kings and Queens, or whatever it might be.

And it turns out that has never been, as far as we can tell, such a Golden Age. There has always been criticism of the teaching of History in schools as long as History has been taught in schools. And much, I think, of that criticism been valid. But it's also worth saying, in fairness, that there has also been praise for the teaching of History in schools all the way through that period.

None of that, I think, is to say that there was ever a Golden Age. I think we may indeed have a set of problems about teaching History in schools at the moment, but I don't think what that problem is, or what those problems are, is to be understood in terms of a catastrophic declension from a once-great Golden Age."

"And yet that view is always trotted out. People are always saying 'It was better in my day'. And as you say the time period isn't normally established. So why is that? Why do people always think it was better in the past? And is that just people looking through rose-tinted spectacles?"

"It's a standard explanatory paradigm for much of the media that things are terrible now, and they must've been better earlier. And that in a sense absolves you from having to dig deeper into the subject to find out what the truth of things might be. But it's certainly true that from the 1900s on, people have been complaining that History is less well-taught than it was before. Well, that can't be true for the whole 100 years, since if it were then presumably no History would be being taught at all at the moment. But it's always a strong temptation, I think, to say that things were better in the past, and part, of course, of the point of studying History... is to suggest that that's very often a lazy way of thinking about things, and it's very often wrong."

--- 1st December 2011 | BBC History Magazine
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