Archives and historical narrative

The recent controversy over history teaching sometimes appeared to turn on whether the syllabus should consist of a chronological narrative of events or of a set of techniques for finding and organising historical data.

I see no point in arguing that narrative should or should not enter into history teaching: whatever anyone intends it is bound to be woven into it. No research technique is learned without being practised; and no research technique is practised without being used to gather material on some historical event which constitutes a narrative. The real question is whether pupils are to be presented with an officially approved narrative which they are expected to learn or whether they are to explore something of the nature of historical narrative. I suggest that historical narrative has two characteristics which make the latter course the only honest one.

First, there are many narratives. Any historical event can be seen from multiple points of view, all of which need to be appreciated. And there are the histories not only of each nation as a whole but of every locality in it, of international relations and of a multitude of human pursuits. All of these are worth studying, and it is not clear that any of them is more fundamental or essential knowledge than any other. Which for example takes precedence, the problems of national government through the ages or the history of the neighbourhood we live in?

Second, narratives are fissile. A narrative as presented by a historian has been assembled from multiple and often fragmentary sources which we can return to. Anyone studying history at any level should be introduced to these sources, and made aware that a narrative constructed from them could take more than one form. Preferably they should attempt to construct a narrative from the sources themselves. Here archives play a proud part in history teaching. A few years ago I was in a party visiting the Lancashire Record Office. Our guide asked how many of us had when at school visited a museum. Everybody had. And how many had visited a library? Again, everybody. And how many an archive? Nobody. But the Lancashire Record Office now regularly hosts school parties who handle the documents and surely learn how a narrative which superficially is a smooth progression of events breaks down into its component parts. This is unquestionably an improvement in the teaching and learning of history since the days when schoolchildren never went near archives, and the educational work of archives and archivists is something we should fiercely defend.

There is another point. Any syllabus in any subject must be negotiated, in the sense that one negotiates a hairpin bend: each pupil must make sense of it and make a pattern from it that is their own. This is something that cannot but happen, human consciousness being what it is, and it is beyond the control of any syllabus designer. The use of archives in history teaching helps to ensure that the study of history is not a frontal advance in a single direction and that it is therefore better suited to the individual mind. From the many and discrete sources we learn to make sense and to judge. This is one way of learning to think. And who will deny that as among the purposes of education?


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