The Red lines through the history books

According to the Radio 4 programme ‘A Point of View’, featuring historian David Cannadine (BBC Radio 4, Friday 20.50 and Sundays 0850), Russian authorities have recruited a group of academics to draw up a new school textbook.

The aim is to create an approved version of Russian history, playing down the Communist excesses and stressing the positive achievements of the Russian people in defeating the Nazis.

An effort echoing an earlier attempt by a certain Joseph Stalin.

Yet Cannadine points out how in any country aspiring to a measure of academic freedom, it is very difficult to produce an agreed account of the national past.

He argues even if confined to the 20th Century, there is an enormous amount to disagree on in recent Russian history with genuine scope for legitimate controversy about questions as: why did the Bolshevik Revolution happen in 1917, was Lenin’s regime bound to lead to the excessive horrors of Stalinism, and why did Communism fall and the Soviet Union come apart?

Disputes about what constitutes the national past are not confined to former Communist countries, nor unique to professional historians.

Earlier this year the Texas Board of Education, which is responsible for designing the history curriculum taught in its state schools, wanted a radical re-writing of the history syllabus, stress how the founding fathers of the United States, and the authors of its constitution, intended America to be a Christian nation, rather than one upholding the principle of the separation of church and state, as well as greater celebration of the role and status of Ronald Reagan.

Using these examples, Cannadine highlights how such history wars are as much political as they are academic.

He draws inspiration from historians from an earlier time, George Macaulay Trevelyan who agreed with Edward Gibbon that much of history was a “register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind”. But he also insisting that history was, in addition, “the register of the splendour of man, and of his occasional good fortune, of which our island has had more than its share”.

If the teaching of history in our schools is to be reformed again, then both of these perspectives need to be very firmly – and simultaneously – borne in mind argues Cannadine, but who decides what history is taught in schools: should it be the government, or academic experts, or examination boards, or the schools themselves, or even the parents?

One contribution I would make to the debate is the concept of ‘truthiness’.

In a recent political debate the American Senator Moynihan said: ‘You can have your own opinions, but you can’t have your own facts.’

I want to disagree with him. Not because I want to mislead, lie, or create some form of legitimacy for untruths.

I would love there to be absolute truths. In the same way I would love there to be a Father Christmas. Yet I would question if we do live in a world where there are absolute rights, and counter-balancing absolute wrongs.

Now I am not an extreme post-modernist-relativist who would explain away everything as relative and make no moral stance. (My own view is that all things are relative: but some things are more relative than others, and individually you need to draw a line somewhere on issues, but equally appreciative your stance is relative.)

A major philosophical concept, well at least a label, was not created by a philosopher – but by a comedian. During an episode of the political satire show ‘The Colbert Report’ comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word ‘truthiness’. It means in essence: ‘the quality of stating concepts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than the facts.’

Our reality is that we all see the world through ‘truthiness glasses’. So, to counter Senator Moynihan, we do indeed have our own facts.

You are the only one who can tap into your perceptions – and how do you know you are really perceiving what you are perceiving? A conundrumm mitigating against 100% external validation.

So, when it comes to studying history, do we have historical truth, or historical truthiness?

For comunicators and anyone working in the field of creativity, perceptions are just as real issues to deal with, manage , and respond to, just as much as the so-called ‘facts’.

Whatever history you want to believe in will be the history you want to believe in – and that’s the truthiness of the matter.

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