I like the way that whenever Steph writes a planning post and you click on links to her planning forms she has book lists not only for each of her kids but also for herself. This post is in that spirit — book ideas for adults who may be thinking about history because we are teaching it to our children (or think we ought to be).
I have been away for a few days. Working. I gave a workshop at a conference and then stayed for the conference. I met a bunch of new people, some of whom might become clients but some of whom will not. One of the latter is a historian, now working in research administration. We got on really well. She doesn’t homeschool but she does have daughters just a bit older than Tigger. And we talked a bit about our kids.
I happened to mention to S. the comments I have posted here about teaching history, particularly of WWII. One of the good things about homeschooling is that if we don’t like the way something is taught in schools, we can teach it differently. The downside of that is that we often have to come up with that without many resources. So we were chatting about the misrepresentation of the reasons for WWII and how that impacts current political discourse and she mentioned a book by Margaret MacMillan (famous Canadian historian) that had been published recently. In fact it had been reviewed last Saturday in the Globe & Mail (major Canadian newspaper) and S. still had a copy. She gave it to me before I left.
Dissecting the reasoning and rhetoric behind current quagmires could easily take up a whole book, but MacMillan’s canvas is much broader than that. In a series of brief, interconnected chapters, she sets out to trace the ways public history has been used in the modern world and how this almost inevitably leads to abuse. She begins by noting how easily history can be simplified to fit comfortable stereotypes, and to provide easily digestible lessons in good and evil, not to mention inexhaustible lists of grievances.
Where myths arise, and get challenged by scholars, fights typically break out over who owns the history in question. MacMillan’s book is in part a roll of honour of such trouble-making historians, and she wishes there were more of them.
Although the reviewer is generally positive about the book, he does point out its limitations. One is, apparently, that it is based on a series of lectures and seems to have been edited a bit too quickly. No source notes, for example. The other is a certain inconsistency in the treatment of issues like reparations and a too easy dismissal of the history of inequalities and oppression of various kinds.
MacMillan seems to connect such analysis of inequality or oppression with its regrettable embodiment in political identities, which leads in turn to historical fantasies. Yet the tunnel vision of some Québécois nationalists or Deaf activists doesn’t mean there isn’t a real history of systematic discrimination and struggle behind them. Historical consciousness-raising can indeed be liberating, not just for subordinate groups but also for dominant ones, and here is the reason why apologies, inquiries (as into residential schools) and reparations may be necessary.
Overall, the review makes me think this is worth a read. I might go request it from the library. I also thought the book listed as “related reading” looked worthwhile and may be of particular interest to those of you teaching US history. In the online version, a brief review of The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History by Gordon S. Wood is found below the main review.