Things ain't what they used to be

May 16, 1997

History may be 'bunk', a 'distillation of rumour' or 'repeat itself', but it certainly isn't what it was. Harriet Swain reports on the battle being waged between postmodernists and traditionalists in the dust-disturbed discipline

Forget objectivity. When academics defend their vision of history, things get personal. In one corner in the fight engulfing history departments across Britain are the traditionalists, who argue that history is the pursuit of knowledge about the past, that the more you study it, the closer you get, that history is a discipline in the same way as science and that our view of the past is shaped by evidence collected and evaluated by professional historians.

In the other corner are the postmodernists. They say history cannot be separated from the historian, that the past is not a foreign country, that history is a constructed narrative with much in common with literature and that historical truth is not inherent in the evidence of events.

The row is being stoked by Alun Munslow, who teaches history at Staffordshire University and has started the journal Rethinking History. It is regularly fed by Keith Jenkins, senior lecturer in history at the Chichester Institute of Higher Education, who has published two works - Rethinking History and On What is History: From Carr and Elton to Rorty and White - questioning the mainstays of every history student's historiography list.

On the other side, Arthur Marwick, professor of history at the Open University, is planning a fourth edition of his The Nature of History, for the past 30 years one of the mainstays of students' reading lists along with E. H. Carr's What is History? and G. R. Elton's The Practice of History. Supporting him are the majority of today's historians, quietly getting on with the job without feeling the need for too much theory.

The original theoretical dust-up was, naturally, started by the French. In the late 1960s, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida paved the way for most questions occupying postmodernists today - about links between truth and the power systems which determine it, about the discourse between a historian and the object of study, about the nebulous quality of written words.

The debate was propelled into English-speaking historiography in the 1970s by Hayden White, now professor of comparative literature at Stanford University, California, who described histories as "verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found". He argues that history is inevitably rhetorical, a way of ordering the world through communication.

Such ideas were slow to take hold among British historians. Michael Bentley, professor of modern history at the University of St Andrews, says: "Most historians in this country have no training in philosophy or abstract thought and think it's just French twaddle. Their training is punctilious and deeply empirical. They believe you can make no statement that isn't evidenced, that you cannot otherwise get at the truth."

Bentley welcomes some aspects of postmodernism but warns against taking it to extremes. "What was valuable about the old training was criticism, scepticism and discipline," he says. "I worry that postmodernism can be gullible, uncritical and sorely undisciplined."

Patrick O'Brien, director of the Institute of Historical Studies in London, agrees. He describes postmodernism at its worst as "subversive and nihilistic". "All history is about inference and controversy," he says. "But those are always backed by evidence. Once you have that evidence then you can make interpretations about it. Charles I in the end was beheaded. There are some facts out there. What you decide from those facts is more contestable but not that contestable."

Marwick believes we need to know about the past to cope with problems in the present and the way we gain that knowledge is through history. "Historians aren't trying to represent the past; they are trying to produce knowledge of the past," he says. "If people want to know about the past they go and read what historians have written." He acknowledges that historians are fallible - "if they get things 80 per cent right they are doing OK" - but that, like scientists, they can, and do, add to the sum of human knowledge.

Just as it is impossible for scientists to reproduce the natural world, historians cannot reproduce the past. But they can still reveal parts of it. And the more experienced they are and the more precise their use of language, the more likely they are to succeed.

Keith Jenkins disagrees. "We can never find out about the past, we can only find out how other people saw it," he says. "If you are studying 17th-century Spain, you don't go to 17th-century Spain. You go to the library and read books about it. You will never know what 17th-century Spain was to 17th-century Spaniards. The point of studying history is just to see what is the current state of historiography."

Science is no different, he says. To know what's going on in the sciences isto know what's going on in the sciences,not to know what's going on in the real world. "We can never get outside our culture to the real world. We can never pin it down."

Patrick Joyce, professor of history at Manchester University, accepts that history must involve rules of verification, comparison and logical argument, that unlike fiction it is still concerned with questions of truth. "But these rules aren't something to do with the real world. They are produced in the academic community among other places. That truth isn't objectively there. It's to do with procedures of verification."

He adds: "To write postmodernist history doesn't mean we cannot write history. It means we recognise that we are also part of the historical process."

Crucial to these main areas of conflict are a couple of supplementary skirmishes. First comes the social divide. Postmodernism fragments history by allowing it to embrace countless perspectives, all valid. It has helped open the way to views of the past often ignored - from women, from the poor, from the victims rather than victors of wars. Keith Jenkins calls it a "democratisation of history".

The other divide is generational. The postmodernists' claim to be pioneering a new kind of history and waiting for everyone else to catch up infuriates people like Marwick. "The idea that there is a younger generation of historians putting forward a new kind of history is complete rubbish," he says. "A lot of young students want to do history to find out about the past."

And my view of all this? In selecting and presenting the arguments I have been influenced by my own interests and these have been shaped by the interests of the newspaper and its readers. Writing in terms of great men, conflict and winners and losers is probably a result of cultural conditioning. That may not make it any less of a true picture.

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