History's role in 21st-century society is vital, conference hears

November 17, 2011

From politicians' failure to learn from past mistakes to the closure of university departments and the loss of specialist areas, evidence abounds that history is "in crisis". Yet the study of the discipline is, in the words of David Willetts, crucial to the operation of a "free society", with a vital role to play in, among other things, 21st-century politics.

These were among the arguments voiced at a conference in London titled History: What is it Good For?, at which the subject's role in building national cohesion, providing lessons for politicians and challenging comforting myths came under scrutiny.

Alexander Lee, associate fellow at the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick, opened the discussion on 11 November, Remembrance Day, by saying: "This is a day on which we all agree on the importance of history...For the rest of the year, history is in crisis."

Among the speakers was Tristram Hunt, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, who still teaches history at Queen Mary, University of London. He said that the Palace of Westminster was "a Valhalla of democratic history", yet ministers showed few signs of having "learned the lessons of the past", whether in reforming the House of Lords or introducing austerity measures.

Mr Willetts, the universities and science minister, supported the study of history as "part of the rights of a free society", noting the methods of repression in Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania, where even keeping old press cuttings was illegal.

The coalition minister said that he had used historical analysis of the responses to the electoral defeats of 1906 and 1945 to make the case for modernising the Conservatives.

Mr Willetts took comfort from the fact that the creation of University College London and the University of Birmingham had been greeted by criticisms that they were respectively "a mere lecture bazaar" and "a bread-and-butter university", arguments that he said were similar to those levelled at his own higher education reforms.

He disputed claims that his policies were "biased against the humanities" and that "the humanities are in crisis", although he suggested that some courses did not provide a great enough sense of "the overall shape of a discipline before going into more specialist areas".

Meanwhile, Kevin Brennan, MP for Cardiff West and shadow minister for schools, highlighted the role of perspective in history. Having been educated at a Catholic school in South Wales, he said, he grew up thinking of Henry VIII as a Welsh king and "Bloody Mary" Tudor as "a defender of the true faith".

While acknowledging a "legitimate concern" that the teaching of history had "lost too much of a sense of narrative", he disliked the way that this "had led to a stress on an official national story". "The swing away from the analytical skills that historians, and indeed citizens, need is a bad thing," Mr Brennan added.

It was left to Richard Evans, Regius professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge, to make the case for history as "a critical and analytical discipline that exists precisely to interrogate and deconstruct myth and memory, and replace it with source-based, evidence-based argument".

"A narrow, inward-looking sense of national identity is politically dangerous as well as culturally and socially stultifying," he added.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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