Thursday, September 10, 2009

Is this History Debate Bunk?

We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.
George Bernard Shaw

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that none of my formal education actually occurred in Scotland. My primary and secondary stages of education happened in Northern Ireland while my tertiary level education took place at what became Kingston University. So therefore I have no personal knowledge of what is taught in Scottish history classes.

I did however learn about the unfair English landlords in Ireland who continued to export choice crops from their land while their tenants' meagre potato crop from their own plot was blighted. Seeing as my family at the time appear to have been largely tenant farmers to a variety of such landlords and didn't all survive. Does that history cloud my thinking in a certain way? More to the point does it have to cloud it in one direction by my merely learning about it?

Both nations were in personal union with England long before the respective Acts of Union were passed. The Irish had been in personal union since 1541, and Scotland since 1603. The Irish Parliament had passed a Crown of Ireland Act in 1542 to declare Henry VIII King of Ireland. Of course when Henry's last child Elizabeth died the crown passed to his Great Nephew who was already James VI of Scotland.

Of course us Irish had our Battle too, indeed it was a whole 55 years before Culloden had its turn, a date that is inescapably embossed in my brain. Culloden was not of Scots vs English but of Jacobite Scots, French and Irish vs Other Scots and English when it took place in 1745. Like the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, it was a continuation of the Catholic v Protestant contest for the throne of the United Kingdom. Although unlike the Boyne this happened after the Anglo-Scottish Act of Union 1707, rather than a long time before the Anglo-Irish Act of Union in 1800.

Of course some are saying that studying such history will lead to a narrow minded indoctrination if that were the case it would be as a result of a narrow minded curriculum. To experience where something happened, to learn about its history does not lead to one set of answers.

What is worrying is that both sides are politicising the issue. It was Goethe who said that 'patriotism ruins history', Henry Ford said 'history is more or less bunk' and as Mark Twain points out:

'A historian who would convey the truth must lie. Often he must enlarge the truth by diameters, otherwise his reader would not be able to see it'

So is it a fallacy rather than a fact that Ted Brocklebank MSP the Conservative culture spokesman thinks:

"It is vital children learn about history but they must also learn the truth, not some narrow nationalist viewpoint. For example, Culloden had little to do with Scotland versus England and everything to do with religion."
If taught properly that is exactly the tale that should be told. But both sides are playing at the game of claiming history for their own ends. Yet the one thing that has been shown time and time in the past in that history is an interpretation of those that look into it. It is constantly shifting as either more of the truth is unveiled, or as more of it is lost a mist of mythology (even that which is spread by the victors or the strong).

In my view there is nothing with with funding schools trips to historic locations what the soundbites ignore is that the Burns' Heritage Museum is also included in the funding, and that they will be under the auspices of the National Trust for Scotland.

However I'll give my closing thought to George Santayana the Spanish born central figure of Classical American Philosophy, as possibly a warning to us all.

"Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

6 comments:

Wardog said...

I fail to see where the SNP have 'politicised' history other than Lord Foulkes and a few others rather lame accusations.

The our children for generations haven't been taught their own history in any real depth tells a tale in itself.

That is indoctrination.

Stephen Glenn said...

I'm talking of the jumping up and down in the blogs and the comments. Of course the Scotsman's choice of words in the opening paragraph was remiss. I also fear it will become a political football.

Keith Brown's own comments hardly seem to veer away from one point of view:

"The Battle of Bannockburn is a seminal point in Scottish history - a point which forged Scotland's national identity and paved the way to the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320.

"It has developed an iconic status around the world, synonymous with ideas of freedom, bravery, perseverance and triumph.

"At the same time the Battle of Bannockburn also requires us to reflect on the suffering and slaughter of the past and to remember that while history is never forgotten, the future can be better."

Stephen Glenn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KelvinKid said...

My understanding is that a lot more Scottish history is taught in Schools since I sat for my Higher in 1969. I was taught British, i.e. English history. Since leaving school my own reading has partially filled in the gaps and I am clear that the history of Scotland in the last two centuries differs enough for it to be taught in a distinct way.

Whilst you will never be able to arrive at a completely politically neutral explanation of events, historians generally achieve a great measure of concensus in their accounts. The alternative to teaching history formally is to leave Scots to pick up knowledge of their history casually and that seems as wise as using the same method for sex education.

Stephen Glenn said...

KelvinKid very true.

Letting knowledge to be picked up without reference to source is far more problemic than any experience of history from the source.

Matthew Huntbach said...

Yes, the tendency to see Culloden as Scotland v England is very silly, but even seeing it as just religious isn't quite correct, it was also about absolute v constitutional monarchy.

The Battle of the Boyne is a good illustration of how complex these issues can be. It is very easy to see it as Catholic v Protestant, but who had the backing of the Pope in that Battle? William of Orange, with hymns of gratitude being sung in the Vatican at news of his victory.

From the point of view of the rest of Europe, the Boyne was part of a larger conflict, in which France was trying to become dominant European power, and the Jacobites were seen as puppets of France. The papacy in the 17th century had quite a consistent policy of supporting the "Protestants" in what seemed to be Catholic v Protestant conflicts, the underlying reason being they didn't want a dominant European Catholic power.

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