The failings of narrative history
A few weeks ago, while reading responses to the teaching of the Holocaust in British schools, I came across the Conservative History Journal. CHJ's "Tory Historian" expressed an intriguing belief that "History teaching should start at the beginning and go forward in a chronological fashion." Back on May 13, Ralph Luker directed readers to a Kevin Drum post musing that "that history could be made more interesting to high school students if it were taught backwards." These musings are the opposite sides of the same coin and, as a result, share a number of shortcomings. Both Tory Historian and Kevin Drum envision history as The Story of the Past, with extra emphasis on the first the. History is a mess of many stories. It's a mistake to reduce it to a single narrative, either forward- or backward-looking.
To be fair to Drum, he doesn't say that teaching history backwards is necessarily the best way, just that it could be more interesting to students. This might be true. But I think it's just as likely that students find history as taught in school uninteresting because it's often taught in an uninteresting way. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen's The Presence of the Past shows that Americans find school history boring because curricula focus on memorization and musty narratives that have little personal significance.
One way of combating the dryness of history-teaching in schools is to highlight history's contemporary relevance, which is exactly what Drum's proposal would do. But in seeking to tell the story of how we got to be where we are now, teachers who adopt a reverse chronological approach to history risk falling into several traps.
Chief among these is a complete loss of the contingency of history. Some of Drum's commenters hit upon just this point. One points out that teaching Cold War history backwards would make the fall of communism inevitable, ignoring Mikhail Gorbachev's decisions and their wildly unpredictable consequences. When I took Tim Burke's course on West Africa in the Era of the Slave Trade, Tim made a point of asking at various key junctures, "Were there alternative outcomes here? Could the key players made a different decision here?" In some cases, the class agreed that the circumstances were rather restrictive and that it's hard to imagine events following a different path: small-scale trading of slaves was an established practice in west Africa at the beginning of this period, so it would be unreasonable to expect west African societies to abandon that trade with respect to Europeans. At other moments, it's clear that decision-makers had real options and chose those that, wittingly or unwittingly, inflicted tremendous damage. Telling the story of slavery in reverse chronological order would eliminate these moments of contingency. Discovering and thinking hard about these crucial inflection points are some of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of doing history. If the outcome is clear all along, as it must be in reverse chronologies, it becomes nearly impossible to imagine alternative outcomes.
Second, Drum's proposal would lead to to historical narratives that completely ignore the events that don't have a clear relevance to the present. Tracing the history of, say, Protestantism from its current circumstances to its origins would likely say nothing of the Münster Rebellion of 1534-1535. The Münster Anabaptists have no clear descendants these days; 21st century Mennonites have little in common with the theocratic, polygamous rebels of the 16th century. Yet the Münster Rebellion clearly was a significant moment in the Reformation, representing as it did the successful (if temporary) institution of a radical Protestant theocratic polity less than 20 years after Luther's 95 Theses. To leave out events like this because they have no contemporary significance is to miss out on the richness of the past and to, once again, make the present the only possible outcome of the past.
The historical curriculum favored by Tory Historian doesn't have these problems. If you start at the beginning and move forward from there, you have plenty of opportunities to highlight the contingencies of history, the paths not taken. But in arguing that history must be taught from the very beginning and move forward sequentially, Tory Historian mistakenly assumes that all events can only be understood by understanding everything that has come before them.
To some extent this is true. Discussing the origins of World War II without at least a rudimentary understanding of the Treaty of Versailles is clearly a mistake. But it is far less clear why it is necessary to have studied the rise of civilization in Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium BCE. To be sure, all history classes have to start somewhere. Pieter Judson hinted at how difficult this can be when he opened the first day of a class on modern European history by saying something along the lines of, "This is the day where I cover all the history up to the French Revolution." But it is simply not necessary to study the whole of human history prior to event A in order to study event A.
In describing the holist fallacy, David Hackett Fisher brings up the UNESCO project of writing a complete history of the world. He bitingly concludes that "a project designed to explain everything ends, predictably, by explaining nearly nothing."
The mistake that Kevin Drum and Tory Historian share is the assumption that a clear narrative History exists to be taught. For Drum, History is everything that has brought us to where we are today. For Tory Historian, History is the grand sweep of human existence. For both, history is static and uncontroversial, simply a story to be told. This is wrong-headed for at least two reasons. First, history is controversial (as Tory Historian admits), subject to frequent revision as professional historians make new discoveries and syntheses. Second, no historical narrative can possibly encompass everything, even in a class with a tight geographical and chronological focus (you try condensing the vast literature on World War I into a single class). History, in its rawest form, is a messy jumble of events, trends, and developments. Historians tell stories from this jumble, but there's not just one story to tell.
All historical narratives are vulnerable to these failings. It's not easy to tell a clear story while constantly exploring other possibilities and emphasizing that there's more to it than just this story. But history can be taught in a way that is both responsible and interesting. There's no need to teach history backwards to arouse student interest. Show that history is more than a collection of facts and that the past is full of myriad possibilities and you'll avert student boredom. Nor is it necessary to follow a strict chronological approach to teach history well; it's all right to focus on particular moments in the past, as long as plenty of context is provided.
History takes many forms. Reducing it to a single narrative (even one that moves backward in time) restricts it to just one, and one that many students do not find compelling. Good history presents a compelling story, all the while recognizing that it's not the only story out there.