We are all familiar with the opening life of LP Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Like all elegantly expressed truths it quickly became a cliché. And, as such, like all clichés, it obscures as much as it reveals. It is difficult not to look on the alienness of the past as indiscriminately and equally estranged from us; just as the ancient Greeks were indifferent to the infinite distinctions among those they labeled barbaros, ‘barbarians’ – which in essence means ‘those who cannot speak Greek’ – so the past can begin to seem homogeneously foreign, lost in translation. Indeed, perhaps our search for continuities is in itself a tacit acknowledgement of the voids and spaces we try so hard to ignore as we peer behind us to the vanishing horizon.
But it is easy to forget that, for all but a handful of our ancestors, most of their world was no less foreign to them than it is to us, a place of wonder, discomfort and fear where misapprehensions could quickly proliferate like flies in the heat. This, at any rate, was the thought that occurred to me as I flicked through an example of one of the least explored literary genres of the early-modern and medieval world, the pilgrims’ travel guide.
In May Brighton College, an independent fee-paying school, announced its intention to make the study of history compulsory for all pupils through to 18. Whatever one’s view of the decision, the fact that it was considered unusual and innovative enough to make the national newspapers should give us – and anyone interested in the practice and pleasures of history – pause for thought.
Should it not be obvious why the past is worth studying all the way through school? And, if it is not obvious, do we make the case for our subject’s virtues with sufficient force? What, indeed, are its virtues?
For me history isn’t really about the past. It is about how we engage with the past, which isn’t quite the same thing. That is what makes it such an excellent educational tool: to read history is to be constantly aware of the struggle between certainty and doubt. Indeed ‘bad’ history – poor research, weak methodology, clumsy arguments and so on – can be just as instructive and illuminating as its counterpart, precisely because it draws attention to the processes and techniques that all historians use.
All history is selective. But where, then, is its truth? One way to answer that question is to consider the areas in which history is most unlike itself, the margins of the discipline where it clearly shades into other traditions of thought, where facts are at best unstable and often largely absent.
One of the many criticisms leveled at Michael Gove’s revision of the history curriculum was that is would reduce lessons to little more than the recitation and memorializing of facts, to what Sir Philip Sidney called ‘the bare was of history. But the simpler a statement of fact is, the more it deceives us of its certainty – and particularly so when facts are strung together like prayer beads to form a providential narrative of national greatness, as Gove’s vision did.
The problem we have as historians is that such narratives – themselves almost indistinguishable from myths – have a tenacity that genuine history with its caveats and lacunae struggles to overcome. And in practice the seductiveness of their clarity only serves to provide the past with a more subtle oblivion than mere erasure. Once the glass is cloudy, it is impossible to clean.