What is History?

In this edition of On My Bookshelf I rediscover a history lesson.

This little paperback was published by Pelican Books, an imprint founded by Penguin Books in 1937 to offer intellectual nonfiction to ordinary people for “no more than the price of a packet of cigarettes.” The books were very popular in the postwar period, The Guardian calling them an “informal university for ’50s Britons.” My copy of What is History? by E. H. Carr was published in 1965 and shows its age. The pages are not so much yellowed as nicotine colored but the spine has held up. When I open it, for the first time in decades, I see a dedication written inside. A friend gave it to me for Christmas in 1965. She signed it with her schoolgirl nickname which I will refrain from sharing with the world to preserve her dignity. She is one of the few friends from that long ago time I am still in touch with.

What led me back to this book after so long? I remembered it and thought it might shed light on the current controversy over the teaching of history, particularly the history of slavery and race in America. I was not disappointed. This is one of the first relevant quotes I came across:

“There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write.

E. H. Carr

Carr was a diplomat and journalist turned academic historian best know for his 14 volume history of Soviet Russia. This book of historiography is based on a series of lectures he gave at Cambridge in 1961, an argument against the notion that history can be objective. He traces the development of the study of history from the eighteenth century focus on elites to the nineteenth century notion that history is a collection of immutable facts; from the early twentieth century idea of history as the biographies of Great Men to his own argument that history is about social forces, “a social procession in which individuals are engaged as social beings.”

Of course historians themselves are social beings. In the first lecture Carr advises “before you study the history study the historian.” Later he adds “before you study the historian, study his historical and social environment. The thought of historians, as of other human beings, is moulded by the environment of the time and place.”

On the purpose of history Carr had this to say:

The past is intelligible to us only in the light of the present; and we can fully understand the present only in the light of the past. To enable man to understand the society of the past, and to increase his mastery over the society of the present, is the dual function of history.

Carr had his critics at the time and since, but his central argument has held up remarkably well. If only his dry language could calm the impassioned and often hysterical fighting over American history today. In Texas a new law prohibits the teaching of anything that might cause students “discomfort, guilt, or anguish.” Well, that pretty much rules out the whole of human history! Plagues, wars, famines, revolutions. It’s just one discomforting thing after another. For every peace treaty a guillotine, for every act of heroism a Judas. And as for the Bible, who wouldn’t feel anguish at the Slaughter of the Innocents and so many more disturbing stories in the holy book. Trying to clean up history is a slippery slope.

I couldn’t put it better than Petula Dvorak in today’s Washington Post:

Learning about the brutal past isn’t about guilting White people or dividing Americans. It’s about truth. And until Americans understand and acknowledge our real history – in its entirety – we can’t move forward as a unified nation.

But of course that’s exactly what the extremists who have taken over the Republican party want – to divide Americans for their own personal political gain. If only those who want to teach a patriotic myth instead of history were themselves patriotic. As E. H. Carr said, our character as a society is on the line.

For more on this topic see my Dabbler article Who Owns American History

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