The big picture's past, present and future

July 27, 2007

History needs Grand Narratives and long-term perspectives to help us understand our lives, says Penelope Corfield.

Historians haven't yet lost the plot but they have lost the big picture. We are indeed good at understanding plots and unravelling them in all their intricate detail. We are good at taking wide-angled views and writing ambitious studies of empires and identities, nation-building and ideas.

But we have taken our eye off the very long term. We don't, with very few exceptions, write about the entire human story. And having written our time and-place-specific histories, we generally don't indicate what light these studies throw on a diachronic or through-time perspective.

This collective silence has deprived the research and especially the teaching of history of a powerful tool - the power of what is termed Grand Narrative. Such big accounts provide mental frameworks that act as mental "locators" into which people fit the detailed histories that they learn. If historians are not providing and debating Grand Narratives, then those who study history will end up confused and reliant on half-digested ideas, culled from a medley of political, religious or cultural traditions.

One major reason for the neglect of the very long term is an obvious practical one. As the quantity of research multiplies, so history as a discipline is sub-divided into separate specialisms. In Britain alone, there are more than 2,000 academic historians. Worldwide, the number is probably well over 100,000. Since no one can keep up with the output of all these busy scholars, the professional answer is to specialise, either in a particular period and/or on a particular theme.

Furthermore, these subdivisions of academic history are incorporated into research, teaching and assessment at all levels. History students at university choose bits and pieces from the expertise of their lecturers. Yet students are rarely invited to debate the possible long-span frameworks of history, whether cyclical, linear, static, revolutionary or multi-stranded.

British schoolchildren similarly take selected topics from the national curriculum. They may jump from (say) the Romans to Henry VIII to the Industrial Revolution, and on to the two world wars. One certainty is that they will study Hitler - that is, if they take history as an option after Key Stage 3. Another is that they will be confused, without a framework into which to "fix" the different periods.

A call for historians to resume consideration of the very long term does not mean stopping what we now do. It is a plea for an addition, not a subtraction.

Especially, it is not a call for a return to over-simple models. The 20th century witnessed the wreckage of two influential Grand Narratives. One was the inevitable "march of progress", from barbarism to civilisation. That vision sank before world wars, tyrannies, famines, killer epidemics and genocides. The other was the Marxist revolutionary sequence of historical stages, driven by the class struggle. It was scheduled to produce an egalitarian communism and the "withering-away" of the state. But this model too has fallen by history's wayside, disproved by events.

Oversimplified versions of history have led to disasters, especially when they are taken as guides to public policymaking, and oversimplifications have also stultified learning when they are taught to students and the public as infallibly true.

The abuse of past Grand Narratives does not, however, mean that there is no place for a collective human story. Instead the challenge is to produce and to debate a more rounded and complex picture. Such big stories are likely to be pluralist accounts of quest and conflict, rather than tending to a single triumphant goal. And understanding narratives entails debate and analysis, and even, if need be, rejection and the search for something better.

In secondary schools, in particular, long-term perspectives are needed within the national curriculum, as Ofsted has just noted. Why aren't teenagers offered strong Grand Narratives about outcomes that affect their daily lives? Why not a unit on the peopling of Britain, from the Celts to the present day? Or on the history of wars and peace-making, from tribal warfare to the United Nations? Conflict and conflict avoidance can hardly be more urgent as issues of our time.

Another obvious agenda needing a long-swing approach is citizenship education. Why not cover the contests for rights from Magna Carta to a (coming soon?) written constitution? The framework for Key Stage 4 offers great potential for basing both skills and understanding on documented historical experience.

All people and peoples are living histories. It is part of their education to understand and debate the complex human story in which we all participate. Historians, along with human geographers, archaeologists, environmentalists and all other long-span experts, are well placed to frame such diachronic accounts via the worldwide wealth of our in-depth understanding. That makes a good new agenda.

Penelope J. Corfield is professor of history at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the author of Time and the Shape of History , published by Yale University Press (£25) and recently hosted the conference "Returning to the Big Picture: Historians and Periodisation".

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