by Ahistoricality | 10/17/2008 02:39:00 PM
Via Ralph Luker, I note a new effort to clarify the liberating role of history, and the importance, conversely, of liberating history from legislated truths. The new appeal says, in part [emphasis added]:
History must not be a slave to contemporary politics nor can it be written on the command of competing memories. In a free state, no political authority has the right to define historical truth and to restrain the freedom of the historian with the threat of penal sanctions.
We ask government authorities to recognize that, while they are responsible for the maintenance of the collective memory, they must not establish, by law and for the past, an official truth whose legal application can carry serious consequences for the profession of history and for intellectual liberty in general.
In a democracy, liberty for history is liberty for all.

I would add, in the list of dangers to history from state attention, the creation of national curriculums of such detail and narrow conception as to force primary and secondary school history into memorization exercises, stripping them of the inquisitive and argumentative joy that real history offers.

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Anonymous Ralph Brauer on 10/17/2008 3:56 PM:

This is one of the most important posts that we have had on this site. The fear about history at the K-12 level is especially apt. During the reign of an education commissioner whose employees nicknamed her the Black Widow, my home state of Minnesota did attempt just such a rewrite of the history curriculum. Only the courageous efforts of teachers and university professors prevented what could have been a travesty.

But more than that has been the sense of history exemplified by the Bush Administration in which the well-researched investigation into the past becomes replaced by a view that sees history as a "tool" of policy.

Thank you for this important piece.

Have others on this board run into attempts to redefine history and what have they involved?


Blogger Jeremy Young on 10/17/2008 8:51 PM:

I hate to say it, but I don't know what the heck this petition is talking about, which is why I haven't added my name to it.

Is it referring to anti-history campaigns by groups like the Taliban blowing up historic Buddha statues? The furor (now over a decade old) over national standards for history textbooks? Something going in in France that I haven't heard of?

I'm sure you'll explain it to me here in this comment thread, and I'm sure I'll agree with it -- but I still won't sign the petition. Maybe I'm just being curmudgeonly, but I think if you use language like "liberty for history is liberty for all" to make your point -- language that sounds nice but is so vague that even the people this petition is aimed at could plausibly claim to support it -- then you've watered your message to the point of meaninglessness.

I did read it in the original French, and it wasn't any better.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 10/17/2008 9:54 PM:

There's more detail in this Timothy Garton Ash article which Ralph Luker also linked. There are a whole host of cases in which this has become an issue: in Europe, where criminalization of German holocaust denial has extended to the Armenian case, criminalization of equalhanded imperialism studies, and a host of other instances in which national figures, founding myths or traumas are 'protected' by laws limiting free speech and publication; in India, where both de facto and de jure restrictions on scholarship and imposition of national narratives are powerful forces; in China, of course, and Japan, both of which have given their official imprimatur to histories of the 20th century which make them look good and the other bad (and, of course, are mutually contradictory); several state cases in the US where legislators have included language (Florida was the most recent and widely publicized case) which required teachers to focus on a narrow, triumphalist and "traditional" history.

There is a more subtle form which is coming, too, at the college level: "articulation." For those of you who don't teach in state systems, this means the attempt to harmonize course numbers, descriptions and content across campuses in order to make transfer more transparent and transfer credits more reliable. The extremes of the system have the most power: the flagship universities and the community colleges. The courses most affected will be common survey histories: world and US history, in particular.

I disagree, by the way, that it "sounds nice but is so vague that even the people this petition is aimed at could plausibly claim to support it." This petition is broad, yes, but draws a clear line between the practice of history and the legislative/regulatory process, which is the entire point of it. It's establishing a principle.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 10/17/2008 11:17 PM:

I've now read the Ash piece, and not only am I still not certain the petition expresses what he's trying to say, I'm not even sure I agree with him. So now we, as historians (or budding historians, in my case), are supposed to help "see off the nanny state and its memory police" -- when most of us owe our jobs and salaries to the existence of the nanny state (and God bless it for being there for us)? We're supposed to say that what David Irving did isn't criminal, or that Ward Churchill shouldn't be fired for what he said? I disagree on all counts. I support the nanny state in its commendable desire to protect the innocent victims of genocide, and I oppose the "right" of historians to further harm those victims by arguing that their suffering didn't exist. Particularly when those historians are employed by the state -- they have a responsibility to respect some civic values.

And beyond the Ash article, what's wrong with "articulation"? I guess I'm just on the wrong page here. Maybe I've been reading too much David Horowitz.


Anonymous Ralph Luker on 10/18/2008 9:55 AM:

Jeremy, You're way off here. Ward Churchill committed acts of professional malfeasance that have nothing to do with what the European historians are talking about. He was fired for them. What David Irving does is mind-bogglingly unprofessional. He should *never* be hired to teach. But once you start criminalizing thought or speech, there's no reasonable stopping point. No matter who controls the state, you surely do *not* want the state policing historical discussion and debate. Ahistoricality might have mentioned the case of Hindutva in writing South Asian history. These are *very* serious threats to the freedom of historical inquiry, discussion, debate, publication, and speech. Think about it.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 10/18/2008 11:44 AM:

Jeremy, this is wrong on so many counts, I hardly know where to begin. In fact, I think it best if I don't, at this time.

I'll just say that Ralph's got it right. There's more, but I'm going to let it sit a while.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 10/19/2008 3:21 PM:

I've expanded on my thoughts, and also offered some apologies, in this post.


Blogger Ross on 10/19/2008 3:56 PM:

If I'm reading this post right, it seems like you're trying to say that consensus history is a dangerous thing. That we should avoid teaching history simply from accepted points of view.

I'm taking AP US History right now, and that's exactly what I'm seeing. My teacher, he's a great teacher but still needs to help us do well on the test, tells us to write "popular history" in our essays to do well. And the text book says things like "while the Articles of Confederation worked well at the time, they are now recognized to not have been acceptable" and we're just supposed to accept that. But I'm still curious - what made them unacceptable? And why, authors of my textbook, were the elites who wrote the Constitution not creating a document that catered to elites? Now, I'm not saying I agree with the statements in those questions, but I'd still like an answer. And a course based around standardized tests doesn't offer that.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 10/19/2008 8:21 PM:

Ross: AP history ought to be beyond "memorize these facts and established interpretations." If the texts you're using aren't offering evidence one way or the other, I'd say that they are flawed and unworthy.