Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Has secularisation eroded our understanding of history?

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Historian and MP Tristram Hunt
A piece on the state of history teaching and the declining levels of historical understanding [PDF] among the British public by the historian and Labour MP Tristram Hunt, published in the new issue of the History Workshop Journal, contains a provocative assertion that many secularists and humanists will no doubt take issue with. Having provided some figures from polls on public knowledge (84 per cent of university undergraduates don't know who commanded the British at Waterloo, for example), Hunt suggests that such shocking historical literacy may have its roots in the decline of religion:
"[W]hat these figures hint at is the steady dehistoricization of the public realm. This has, in my view, gone hand in hand with increasing secularization. The institutions of civil society through which our forebears gained their knowledge of the past and their place within it – close-knit, multi-generational extended families; the church or chapel; girl guides and boy scouts; trade unions or Lodges; political parties or civic institutes – have haemorrhaged members. Learning outside the classroom has collapsed. Today, it is really the National Trust (with its 3.3 million members) which keeps the flame alive. The consequence has been a remarkable loss of historical bearings."
Hunt backs up the assertion with two supporting quotes, the first from the great Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm's study of the 20th century, The Age of Extremes:
"The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late twentieth century. Most young men and women at the century’s end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in."
 The second quote is from the conservative historian of religion Jonathan Clark, who reaches a similar conclusion to Hobsbawm:
"Religious identity was once a potent source of a sense of historical bearings: it underwrote individual identity in a way that turned history into a procession, and a procession set within a wider providential scenario . . . The growing separation of Church and State [in the UK], formally avowed in statute and delivered in practice by the market, therefore produces a culture that is not only officially secularized, but also silently dehistoricized."
This is certainly a challenging assertion. It seems difficult to deny that historical understanding is getting worse (although as with all narratives of "decline", I feel I would need to see convincing evidence that things were better in the past before I could be absolutely sure), but is secularisation really to blame? My instinct as a humanist and secularist is to say no, but I can see Hunt's point that organisational activities such as church or the Guides and Scouts can expose people to a historical tradition and thus increase their understanding of the past. Likewise trade unions or political parties, although this raises the question of what we mean by "secularisation" – are we talking about the decline of communal activities in general, and if so is this secularisation?

However, it is important to ask what kind of historical understanding was provided by such organisations. Here, I think the quote from Clark is rather telling, as he bemoans the loss of a religious identity which "underwrote individual identity in a way that turned history into a procession, and a procession set within a wider providential scenario". Such a teleological view is well suited to religion, which can provide believers with a folk history that explains the world in a manner that fits the traditions of the faith. You could certainly argue that modern, Western secular society – so focused on the present and beset (or blessed, depending on your perspective) by consumerism and individualism – is lacking this kind of collective memory, which serves a purpose in binding a society together around a shared narrative, but is this the type of history we are talking about when we look to address the decline in historical knowledge?

The government's review of the history curriculum, which aims to furnish children with an understanding of "our island story", would suggest that it is, but others, such as the historian Richard Evans, have warned of the dangers of attempting to construct national identity through the teaching of a teleological view of British history. Personally, I'm inclined to agree with Evans, who has stressed the importance of scepticism in history:
"History is by its nature a critical, sceptical discipline. Historians commonly see one of their main tasks as puncturing myths, demolishing orthodoxies and exposing politically motivated narratives that advance spurious claims to objectivity."
If historical literacy has worsened (and I think it probably has), I agree that it is a problem, but I don't think we should necessarily bemoan the decline of providential religious perspectives, even if involvement in religion did contribute to historical knowledge in the past. History should teach young people how we have arrived in our modern secular age, and that entails an understanding of the advances that have occurred, both socially and scientifically, as well as knowledge of the injustices we humans continue to perpetrate in spite (or because) of modernisation. It should demonstrate that at times the past can provide guidance for confronting our present and future problems, while pointing out that at other times it can prove to be no guide at all. At heart history is the story of humanity's imperfection, and surely nothing is more secular than that.

Interested to hear views on this - please share in the comments.
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