Healthy History

Roy Porter argues that historians must re-examine their purpose, between specialised study and general discovery.

Over the last decade, the government has decided to take a stand on the teaching of history. History must be relevant, history must confirm a sense of British identity, history should be taught on tangible grids of dates and facts. These directives raise two questions. First, what is the purpose of history? (The official assumption is that good history is usable history.) Second, what should be the contents of history? Here the Education Secretary has favoured teaching a common core focusing upon some supposed common national heritage.

Academic historians and history teachers have reacted alike in a hostile manner to these directives from Above; don't we all hanker after some ideal of Lernfreiheit and Lehrfreiheit? Many fellow historians find the government's proposals retrograde; I share their views. Here I wish, however, to argue, more provocatively, that if we historians find ourselves in the humiliating position of being told how to do our own job, at bottom we have only ourselves to blame (and doubly so, if we can't see why this is the case). How so?

For over a century, historians have been proclaiming their independence. They are scholars, investigators, researchers. They probe into the past with the same objectivity, neutrality, disinterest, the same Olympian superiority to prejudice, as a scientist peering down his microscope at a bacteria culture on a petri dish. They are animated by pure love of truth, and labouring to advance knowledge.

History, the object of their inquiry, is a corpus of ancient manuscripts, official records, and material objects, which by the meticulous cultivation of increasingly exacting scholarly techniques, can be made to yield more accurate (or at least less erroneous) findings. If the limitations of the sources prevent full reconstruction of the truth, we can at least better know what we can't know, and dynamite old myths (Newton did not discover gravity by watching an apple fall; and so forth).

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