Is History Just Storytelling?
Over the past year or so the history curriculum in this country has been subjected to intense criticism and debate. It seems as though at least three major issues are on the table: should the history curriculum in this country centre more on British history than on world history; should history be taught chronologically; and should history be taught as a narrative of simply what happened in the past.
As with any subject of debate there are of course points both in favour and against each argument. Michael Gove, the current Secretary of State for Education, has, along with many others, argued that children in this country are owed as their birthright the stories of Britain’s fame and shame; Lord Luke has maintained that chronological teaching of history leads children to better understand the system of cause and effect that governs our lives; and, finally, the Better History Group have argued that children need to spend more time learning historical facts and less time analysing the study and purpose of history itself.
These arguments might seem convincing. After all, it would certainly seem as though the purpose of history is to deal with facts from the past and these facts must happen chronologically and they certainly affect our current understanding of ourselves.
However, what do we mean when we say that something is an historical “fact”? Who determines a particular event or idea as factual? How many people would have to agree upon the particulars in order to render it factual? Furthermore, are politics, international relations, power, and language not able to distort “facts”? Indeed, is there a single fact that is safe from human interpretation?
Furthermore, if we cannot establish fact as an objective entity then the entire study of history becomes reduced to selection of interpreted material. This is deeply unsettling; the implication is that there is not one historical truth but a multitude of conflicting stories. The danger here is that history not only informs us of the past but also creates our identity in the present. Therefore, which story we choose to tell ourselves might be of essential importance to who we feel ourselves to be.
These questions and ponderings about the nature of the discipline of history belong to the field of historiography and they are an integral part of any study of history.
For more information on this debate please see:
If you are interested in this debate between narrative history and historiography you might be interested in our History Summer School. During this five-day course we will examine a variety of methodologies that can be used within the field of history and we will contemplate the nature of historical study itself.