More on history

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.

The book is The Uses and Abuses of History and you can find the review here. Some snippets:

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.

6 thoughts on “More on history

  1. I jotted down these titles to look into in the future. If nothing else, it is fascinating to me to explore (and convey to my kids) how several scholars can look at the same “objective facts” and make very different inferences. Schools (including those in which I was educated) tend to draw a clear line between “fact” and “opinion” (I’m not sure I really understood the shades of gray there until I took college journalism) — with textbooks, of course, offering nothing but pure, objective truth. *LOL*


  2. I’ve been trying to do that too — explore the background behind the things I’m planning for the kids. It inspires me and makes me feel like I’m getting something worthwhile out of the planning even if it doesn’t really “take” with the kids.

    I don’t know if it’s quite in the same line but another book by a historian thinking about her work is Barbara Tuchman ‘s Practicing History


  3. Excellent resources…I’ve tagged them all. Especially in the upper levels, I encourage them to view very different viewpoints of the same event and then give an objective narration of all. Historical, and literary analysis are great skills!


  4. I meant to reply earlier but the week got away on me (yet again). I have an email to you still in my drafts file (!). I was going to recommend, as willa did, Tuchman’s “Practicing History”, a book of essays I love. And Richard Neustadt has a good book, can’t recall the title but something about “History for Leaders” or some such.

    I’m just a mite concerned that the review I read (and yes, it was last weekend’s G&M one) explains that the book is a rather hasty gathering together of some of MacMillan’s lectures. I was rather hoping it would be something better put together, like her other books, just on the subject of historiography rather than history. MacMillan is always very readable and as I think I read in the review, the new book is meant for a general audience. I think all high school students should learn about historiography. And it has the benefit of using recent political leaders as examples.


  5. Just found it on the shelf:

    “Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers” by Richard Neustadt and Ernest R. May

    Required reading for anyone thinking of running for political office. Or voting for anyone running for political office.


  6. Pingback: Book Review: The Uses and Abuses of History | Tricotomania and more

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