Book Review: The Uses and Abuses of History

There hasn’t been as much reading going on around here while the kitchen was in pieces (and I had work on my desk) but I have a couple of things that I have been meaning to write reviews of. First up Margaret MacMillan’s The Uses and Abuses of History.

I found out about this book from a review in the Globe and Mail that a colleague passed to me at a conference recently. (I talked a bit about that here.) We had been talking about kids and things over dinner and one thing led to another. The article was interesting enough that I ordered the book from the library. The length of the wait list was also promising. It was well worth the wait.

MacMillan is a respected Canadian historian, best known to the general public for Paris 1919, and I was expecting a bit of a heavy read. Not at all. This book is a published version of a series of public lectures she gave at the University of Western Ontario. There is a list of further reading at the back but the book is pretty well footnote free and written in accessible language.

MacMillan brings historical knowledge to bear on a series of contemporary debates, elucidating the nature of historical knowledge in the process. As a homeschooling parent, I think it gives a good sense of what we might want our children to know about history, not necessarily in terms of facts and figures but in terms of how we interpret evidence and make arguments using historical knowledge. I’m not sure whether I would assign it to a high school student (if I did things like assign books) but I would certainly recommend it to parents as an aid to thinking about the kinds of questions you might ask your children and the kinds of discussions you might want to have about history in your home. I suppose that would go for any parents who aspire to have interesting discussions with their kids that aren’t about quizzing them on what they are learning in school.

Given that history is often included in state standards and national curriculum because of a perceived need to teach our children who they are, it is particularly helpful that there is a whole chapter in this book about History and Identity and another about History and Nationalism. I’m sure we are not the only family that struggles with these issues.

Overall, this was a relatively quick but satisfying read that will bear reading again in relation to specific needs. I am seriously considering making it one of those books that are on the shelf in case the cat every decides he needs to know some of these things. Or in case I need to remind myself of some of the detail of these arguments. I highly recommend it.


3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Uses and Abuses of History

  1. Pingback: Book Review: First You Build a Cloud | Tricotomania and more

  2. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: July 26, 2008 at Semicolon

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