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Explaining the destruction of past

Is increasing secularisation to blame for the decline of historical knowledge in British society?

Tristram Hunt

Tristram Hunt, historian and recently elected MP for Stoke on Trent, has an interesting article in the latest History Workshop Journal, ‘The Importance of Studying the Past.

His diagnosis of the problem of historical knowledge in wider British society, England in particular, seems spot on and he quotes two very different historians to support his contention that ‘the steady dehistoricisation of the public realm has gone hand in hand with increasing secularisation’. Hunt goes on to point out that ‘the institutions of civil society through which our forebears gained their knowledge of the past and their place within it – close-knit, multi-generational extended families; the church or chapel; girl guides and boy scouts; trade unions or lodges; political parties or civic institutes – have haemorrhaged members.’ Only the National Trust, with 3.3m members (though predominantly middle class), keeps the flame alive.

It’s worth quoting in full the supporting quotes, first, from the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm:

The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late 20th century. Most young men and women at the century’s end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in.

Second, the High Tory Jonathan Clark comes to a similar conclusion: 

Religious identity was once a potent source of a sense of historical bearings; it underwrote individual identity in a way that turned history into a procession, and a procession set within a wider providential scenario . . . The growing separation of Church and State [in the UK], formally avowed in statute and delivered in practice by the market, therefore produces a culture that is not only officially secularized, but also silently dehistoricised.

The idea that a couple of hours of extra teaching of history a week can remedy such a cultural collapse seems preposterous, but that is what much of the debate about history teaching in Britain is actually about. It is good to see Hunt confront the issue. However, I am reminded of Harold Macmillan’s dictum that once a nation’s religion is lost, the nation is lost.