History: the Ghost at the Feast

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The year after I left university, while working as a supervisor for a local bar and nightclub, I applied to a graduate fast-track scheme for a large recruitment consultancy.

The scheme offered good money, benefits and prospects. The process was competitive. I had to go through two local interviews and a regional one. Suited and slick, I must have done well. After a couple of weeks, I was asked to attend a final national level interview with the CEO of the company. I was told that although the panel would be seeing a couple of other candidates the general view was I had, bar unexpected disaster, done enough to be appointed and was told to begin looking for housing in London.

The night before the final interview I ironed my shirt, shined my shoes and went to bed early. The next morning I had a proper breakfast, set off with plenty of time to spare and arrived promptly.

The interview went well, being more of a getting to know each other chat than an in depth interrogation, and from the sort of questions I was asked it became clear I had the job.

And with the certainty came a totally unexpected emotion. Panic. In the eyes of those in front of me I suddenly saw an infinite procession of grey office days. On Target Earnings. Bonuses. Sweaty Christmas parties. Company Car. Private Healthcare. BMW. Tuxedos. Golf Clubs. And all for what? Profits for nameless shareholders and the hope of one day being able spend half the day on fairways and greens.

I wanted my life to mean more.

“I am so, so sorry,” I found myself saying. “I’ve made a mistake. I don’t want to be a recruitment consultant.”

Nobody said a word. The silence lasted hours.

“I’m sorry,” I said again. “I’m going to go.” And I did. I still remember the screech of the chair legs on the lino floor as I pushed it back. Nobody said anything. A few seconds later, past the receptionist and her potted plants and I was out in the sunshine. Half way home I realised I had left my coat but never went back for it. I ignored phone-calls from the company for a couple of days and that was that. Less than a year later I was training to be teacher. Three years after that I was in Ethiopia with VSO. Fifteen years later here I am.

Good story isn’t it? It should be. After all, I have been telling it for years. I love it. It shows me exactly how I want to be seen; competent, clever and talented enough to have got a hot-shot city job but principled enough to make a scene turning it down. It shows me as reflective and thoughtful. It suggests that my decision was a wise one. It makes sense. It is part of my history.

Of course, it is only partly true. The factual bits are; I did pass the earlier interviews and I did walk out of the final one in the way I described. When linked to later events, it does make a convincing narrative. But this narrative has been constructed retrospectively. At the time, my twenty-one-year old self did not know he was going to become a teacher, or go to Ethiopia, or anything else. Yes, he did not want to work in an office but this was probably because he thought it would be really boring. Twenty-one-year old Ben was also young and arrogant enough to think he would have infinite opportunities and so turning this one down was no big deal. Twenty-one-year old Ben was also having a great time living with his friends and working in a nightclub with girls he fancied, and didn’t really want to move to London.

More true. Less noble. A much less satisfying narrative.

Real life very rarely supplies us with strong, convincing narratives so we create our own in order to give ourselves a sense of purpose and meaning. Real life is messy and random and when looked at dispassionately usually does not make much sense. Working out why we did things, let alone why other people did things, is very hard. So we create stories we like.

As a society we do this on a larger scale too. We mythologise past events and weave them into a story. We call it history. And if we are not careful, we teach these stories to the children in our schools.

There isn’t a term for this sort of “Ye Olde Payst Tymes” history, but it is everywhere. It is a land in which Gandhi and Martin Luther King are secular saints with no human flaws. It is a land in which Churchill won World War Two with his cigar and V for victory sign. Here the Suffragettes are solely responsible for getting women the vote and Ring-a-ring a roses is an ancient rhyme about the Black Death. Henry VIII is forever the fat ogre who composed Greensleeves and Reformed the Church just so he could divorce his first wife.

This sort of history is the history of ‘everyone knows’. It is the history of ‘the man in the pub says’. It is the history of Philipa Gregory and the sexy Tudors on TV. It is Horrible Histories at the theatre. It is the history of Catherine the Great and the Horse. It is a story in which one thing clearly leads to another, which leads to another and then to another again and now here we are. It is a land in which, so long as events are set in the past, anything is acceptable.  For most of us, particularly those of us sharing a common heritage and culture, “Ye Olde Payst Tymes” is a nice, comfortable place. It is safe and warm. It is a party of familiar guests who all agree.

There is not much we can do about what happens outside our schools, but such nonsense can easily slip into our classrooms. This happens when the popular societal view of history is confused with the scholarly discipline schools are actually responsible for teaching. When this happens anything goes because what is being represented is seen as self-evidently true.

This is wrong and dangerous. It is wrong because any proper study of anything in history reveals nothing is simple. There is no uncontested narrative. History as Jim Carroll, has so effectively pointed out, is by its nature an argumentative discipline. The USSR won World War Two. Women got the vote because of their contribution in World War One. There is no record of “Ring-A-Ring-A-Roses” anywhere until the 19th century. Henry VIII was athletic most of his life, wanted an annulment not a divorce and the only reason the Pope didn’t grant it was that Catherine of Aragorn’s family had him besiged. Nobody ever died having sex with a horse.  It turns out that what everyone thinks happened is, very often, not what really happened at all and even when there is agreement on what there is valid scholarly disagreement on why and how.

Pointing this out does not make us popular. At the Olde Payst Tymes feast the historian is the ghost who mutters “well not really,” and “yes sort of but not in the way you mean”, and “there really isn’t any evidence for that you know.” True history is the weighing and shifting of evidence to support what is claimed even (perhaps especially) if it makes the world less immediately satisfying, less superficially logical and more difficult to understand. History is more a verb than it is a noun and the teaching of it in schools ought to reflect this. It should be tentative and uncertain and full of provisos. Children should know that almost everything they learn is disputed and that they too might, once they have enough knowledge of the events and what has been written about them, contribute meaningfully to the conversation.

Of course this can feel like it spoils a bit of the fun. It means not spending time in lessons designing shields for a Battle of Hastings reconstruction. It means less dressing up as Tudors and performing in plays. It means no to stories, poems and diaries and yes to lots of essays. It means no to posters commemorating the Battle of Britain pilots and yes to extended writing on the contested significance of the Battle itself. It means saying no to cross curricular links with English if they are studying “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” and more reading historical scholarship alongside good textbooks.

This does not mean that creative activities designed to help students think hard have no place in the classroom, but these should be carefully and judiciously planned and should be a formative not final stage. Such activities can be inspirational and powerful, but should never be a simple celebration of a culturally dominant interpretation for its own sake.

This view is not shared by everyone. I know a history teacher who was told by an Ofsted inspector and History specialist after a lesson on interpretations of the Norman Conquest, “they don’t need this sort of thing in Year 7; just do the Horrible Histories stuff and get them excited.” It is really tempting to capitulate and join the fun at ye Olde Payst Tymes party but it is really, really important that history teachers do not because when we do we create the impression that there is only one interpretation of our past, which invalidates all others. It replaces nuance with black and white certainty, which is a betrayal of history in its purest disciplinary sense. Teachers who allow this to happen are not really teaching history at all.

It is dangerous too. If we create heroes then we must have villains. For every triumphant historical goody there must be a nasty historical baddy for them to defeat. This makes history a moral fable, which is fine as long as we agree with the moral but suddenly scary when those we disagree with create fables radically different to our own.

It isn’t right. The truth, almost all the time, is that history, like life, is painted in shades of grey. Those who lived before we do were no better or worse than we are, and to suggest otherwise is to paint in false colour.

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34 thoughts on “History: the Ghost at the Feast

  1. Ursula Diamond says:

    Great article Ben, enjoyed reading it. If this was how history was taught when I was in school I would certainly have signed up, alas that wasn’t the case.

    Liked by 7 people

  2. Thank you for an interesting read. Can’t help but see a parallel to my subject. Adults as well as students will often think they understand physics ideas, but it’s based on ‘folk physics’, a useful analogue to your ‘narrated history’.

    https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-1-4020-8265-8_200274

    The misconceptions in this model, for example that ‘heavy objects fall faster’, are based on what commonly happens with everyday, human-scale examples. In everyday experience, ‘heavy’ objects are usually dense ones with a small surface area. But students will insist that the principles can be applied more generally, because it’s ‘common sense’.

    On a different note, I’m curious to know how you approach student assumptions that religious figures and events are historical, even when the evidence is much less compelling than would be accepted for other examples. Where would you have them place such ‘facts’ on a mythology-history spectrum?

    Finally, I can’t help but link this back to Pratchett’s ideas of ‘narrativium’. In the Discworld books, this is the driving force that causes effects to follow a storyline. He and his co-authors suggest (in the four Science of Discworld books) that what makes humans special and successful isn’t that we talk, think or use tools. Instead, it’s a combination of these: we tell stories. If so, it’s hardly surprising that both you and I have the same issue; we are both asking students to avoid a strategy that we and they have evolved to use.

    Liked by 8 people

  3. atmikapai says:

    The point that you bring up is quite interesting. Just recently, I read an article about whether a historian’s job was more like that of a scientist or an author. Like the scientific methodology, historians followed a certain process while dissecting and understand the past. On the other hand, like authors, historians interweaved events together so that there was a beginning and an end.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Awesome piece, Ben. I agree so much on the nebulousness of the Truth (or truth) of history. But, interestingly, I also find myself internally arguing for the importance of that Old Payst Tymes feast. I want a people to have something important that they can believe in, adhere to, and aspire to when their own brokenness becomes painfully evident. And yet, I also argue ever more fervently against that, because it is in those moments that the uninformed mind feels utterly lost when compared to a parade of heroes who never actually existed.

    Great piece.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Very well articulated. I think hindsight will always be 20/20 and everything will neatly fit together in the end. I think stories are good conversation starters, but the ghost will always be at the feast. So we either choose the facts or invite the ghost along?

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Winston Churchill once said , ” History is written by the victors ” .
    History is like a story of every man in their own way . Every person interpret it the way they want . And we accept that history which almost coincide with our idealistic thoughts and conscious . But the job of a historian is like a ” Big Bang ” challenge as every narration has their share of truths and lies . Great job and it is quite interesting to learn some great ideas like yours ..

    Liked by 4 people

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  8. Thank you for this thought-provoking post. Fact is often stranger than fiction, but more nuanced and complicated and difficult to convey, and more open to misinterpretation. Lots to think about.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Enjoyed your post. Liked how you compared history to life, a bit unusual. It’s true life is messy and so is history.

    People tend to look to history for affirmation and reassurance for today’s world. And unfortunately to support ongoing issues.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Wanda says:

    I am fascinated by history also, I have complete story from Pearl Harbor all the way thru the war . A 93 yo patient of mine , ask me to rewrite it for him. It has some interesting things in it. He was a Navy man.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. what a great article. i think this point you’re making is especially important now in the technological age of media. we have so much information, there can often be no reason to see only one part of a story, but we often do only see the one part. even retelling events of the present day on the evening news is a story constructed to be the most interesting or shocking thing it can be.

    most notably, i think, it is important to remember the disconnectedness of life events you speak about. that things don’t always go as planned or sometimes there is no plan at all. our paths are not always clear, but our choices are our own (at least, they appear to be)

    Like

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