Who makes history?

Words: Alex Stanton

The structure of the English education system means that the history curriculum is wrought with problems and inconsistencies. This is true of the national curriculum, which guides teachers of pupils up to Year 9 (age 13-14), and of the exam curricula dictated by AQA, Edexcel and other boards, which each include completely different topics as part of their GCSE, AS- and A-levels.

When I was studying my history degree, I focused on recent history and conflict, and wrote my dissertation on the use of history in Islamic State propaganda magazines. But when I discussed my research with friends and family, plenty of people seemed to feel that what I was writing about ‘wasn’t history’, because it was too recent – specifically, because it was within my own lifetime. In their minds, there was a mysterious cut-off point somewhere around my birthday in 1995 where history ended.

Conversations like these raise questions about what we perceive history to be. Most people think of history as the study of a narrative of the past – a set plot – with specific characters like King Henry VIII or Julius Caesar. This is the simplistic understanding we’re taught in schools, and one that’s deeply misleading. 

It was only in the second year of my history degree that I read E.H. Carr’s What is History?. Carr defines history as ‘a continuous interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.’ The historian has to grapple with facts and their interpretation. On a technical level, then, the historian plays an active role in the construction of history. History is an ongoing process which ties the historical work to the time in which it was written. It has the power to define and redefine what we, as a society, believe, and what we want our world to be. 

The historian plays an active role in the construction of history. History is an ongoing process which ties the historical work to the time in which it was written.

In Carr’s definition, interpretation is central to history, and historiography is central to understanding the interpretations in turn. Historiography is the study of how history is written: the preferential selection of facts and sources, and their combination into the story that becomes the ‘history’ we learn. 

Questions should be asked about any piece of historical work. What had been written before on the subject, and how does the work fit into the broader discussion? What primary source material was analyzed? What methodology was used? Historians, like anyone, are products of their environments, and their work does not exist in a vacuum: it reflects their views, their priorities and their interests.

This means we shouldn’t accept historical work at face value. Like different newspapers write about contemporary politics in different ways, and often with an agenda, most areas of history are subject to debate. Different people choose to interpret it differently: David Irving, for example, has written historical books on World War II and Nazi Germany – but he’s also a famous Holocaust denier, and much of his work is considered to be antisemitic conspiracy theories. 

History is used to justify power relationships in society, too, and as power shifts, new types of histories can be written which question the previous status quo. History has been selectively interpreted and mobilized by nationalist and reactionary movements all around the world to create national identities which are then used to justify violence against others. 

This means there are still tensions over how conflicts like the American Civil War are remembered and interpreted.

In 1861, eleven American states wanted to break away from the United States of America to form their own country called the Confederate States of America (commonly referred to as the Confederacy), in which the practice of slavery would be preserved. The remaining states in the Union fought a war against the Confederacy to bring those states back under their control, and later, it was decided to continue the war to end slavery. In 1865, the Confederacy was defeated and the states returned to the Union. Slavery was officially abolished in the US. 

While the Confederacy was defeated by the Union, there are people who try to defend the reputation of the Confederate side. There are proponents of the ‘Lost Cause of the Confederacy’ thesis, or ‘the War of Northern Aggression’, who deny slavery as a cause for the war. The United Daughters of the Confederacy are one group who support this interpretation, and have funded monuments to commemorate the Confederacy and members of the Klu Klux Klan. These groups are amongst the defenders of statues of Confederate officers, which have been focus points for recent Black Lives Matter protests. History, as those protests have demonstrated, is a politically-charged subject.

There are historical works written by famous historical figures themselves, too. Some of the most well-respected works on World War II were written by Winston Churchill between 1948 and 1953, and his particular role and perspective in the conflict he historicizes would be irresponsible to disregard. 

Historiography as a discipline analyses different approaches to history. Different movements have had different beliefs about how history should function. Positivist historians believe that the role of the historian is simply to compile primary sources and let the evidence speak for itself; Marxist historians build on the writings of Karl Marx and emphasise the importance of economics and social class in shaping historical events; postmodernist historians challenge previous approaches to writing history, and reject the concept of a singular, objective truth.

Historiography is crucial because it shows that the version of straightforward narrative ‘history’ we are taught in school does not exist.  It helps us to understand why an American historian writing about slavery in the 1820s would interpret it differently to a historian covering the same subject in 2020. The same can be said of a Russian historian covering Stalin in 1985 and in 1995. 

The issues currently affecting the world, too, will affect the writing of history in turn. Political conversations around subjects like colonialism, race, gender and LGBT+ identities develop with each passing year, and in the future, will change the writing of the history of 2020 in ways we cannot yet imagine.

At the moment, historiography isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Key Stage 3, GCSE, AS- or A-level curriculums, which means those curriculums fail to address the realities of the subject. The number of students applying for history programs in higher education is, perhaps unsurprisingly, on a steep decline, and the culture wars over the statues that represent the way we understand our history are symptoms of the poor quality of our historical education. 

Bringing historiography into the curriculum would help to contextualize contemporary movements like Fill in the Gaps and the Museum of British Colonialism, and, most importantly, address why the perspectives they represent have gone ignored for so long.

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Alex Stanton volunteers for the Edinburgh Peace Institute and has recently graduated from the International Relations Masters program at Leiden University.