Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Some Notes on Simon Schama

1. In a recent article called “my vision for history in schools” Simon Schama said “In these economically and politically tricky times we need history's long look more than ever, Whatever else gets cut in this time of nicks and scrapes, incisions and mutilations, the cord of our national memory had better not be among the casualties”. Schama has a casual attitude towards the cuts. To separate the search for “National memory” and the devastation being wrought by Tory cuts is bizarre. How a search for what is a very vague term national memory is to be carried out when libraries are being closed, universities are cutting history department budgets and teachers and lecturers are being made redundant beats me .

2. Schama exhibits a very nationalist approach to the teaching of history in schools. He says “For even during the toughest trials it's our history that binds us together as a distinctive community in an otherwise generically globalised culture. Mother Teresa and Lady Gaga are multinationals; Oliver Cromwell and Margaret Thatcher are peculiarly ours. In a headphone world where we get to privatise our brains, it's history that logs us on to Our Space “. To say that Cromwell and Thatcher are solely national figures is just ridiculous. For me Thatcher was merely the British expression of a global capitalist offensive against the working class. Cromwell is an international figure and the study of the English revolution is a global phenomenon. To tie the study of English history to the nation’s wellbeing is comparative to the Nazis school of history.

3. Schama has presented a list of events that should be studied. I find it hard that a historian of Schama ability should really reduce historical study to learn things by rote. For me the study of history should be not what happened or when it happened but essentially why it happened. E H Carr posed this question in his ground breaking book What is History he said “If milk is set to boil in a saucepan, it boils over. I do not know, and have never wanted to know, why this happens: if pressed, I should probably attribute it to propensity in milk to boil over, which is true enough but explains nothing. But then again I am not a natural scientist. In the same, one can read or even write, about events of the past without wanting to know why they happened, or be content to say that the Second World War occurred because Hitler wanted war, which is true enough but explains nothing. But one should not then commit the solecism of calling oneself a student of history or a historian. The study of history is a study of causes. The historian, as I said at the end of lecture, continuously asks the question why? and so long as he hopes for an answer, he cannot rest. The great historian or perhaps I should say more broadly the great thinker is the man who asks the question why about new things or in new context”

4. Another aspect of Schama’s work is his near total absence of any mention of the growth of the Internet especially in relation to a veritable explosion of history blogs on very many differing topics. In fact it would correct that Schama joins a growing band of academic historians who see the Internet as a threat to their cloistered positions. Therefore I do not share or subscribed to this death of history brigade that seem to marching to this tune in English Schools.

5. I do not doubt that with Schama collaboration with the Tories in their act of cultural vandalism will harm his book sales but this will be at the expense of his reputation amongst a growing number of people who are searching for What is History on this matter Schama will not contribute much to the answer.

6. Schama makes this point “But the history of how we came to execute our king, or dominate south Asia, is exactly the history that, in practice, gets short shrift from the present national curriculum. While there is nothing wrong in historian admiring a figure from history or writing a biography of a person who has great qualities that can be passed on to future generations but to put in an article that “our King “ was executed is just plain bizarre. Behind this little slip of the pen is an attitude to history that is very Conservative. The problems is this is the type of history being force fed to young minds.

7. To Paraphrase Shakespeare by your friends you should be known. Schama is clearly one of the British establishment’s favourite historian. He was after all invited by Gordon Brown to meet George Bush at Downing Street on 16 June 2008. Of his decision to go he had to reconcile his "uneasy conscience" One writer said “He was worried that he was being somehow "implicated". And, indeed, he was. You cannot play the role of courtier, with no matter how many private reservations, to a torturer, a mass murderer and a war criminal without being "implicated". The writer then went on to correctly say “ what Schama was in pursuit of in Downing Street was not history, but celebrity. History would have been made if he had confronted Bush with his crimes and repudiated US imperialism. Instead he told Bush how much he agreed with his liberal immigration policy!”

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