17 November 2015

Framing History

Kevin Gannon, who blogs under the pen-name 'The Tattooed Professor', recently wrote a post suggesting that, at least as far as the teaching of US history went, we should think about framing it in a 'continental approach'. He contrasted this with the traditional narrative describing the advance of the frontier from the east coast, which disregards such useful facts as the settlement of St Augustine in Florida by the Spaniards before the Pilgrims arrived, or even the apparently radical notion that the American Indians got here first, and went from northwest to south and east.

While it is an intriguing as opposed to a silly idea, I'm going to need more convincing that it is a good one.

Gannon's agenda becomes apparent when he characterises the traditional narrative teaching of the history of the United States in a rather negative light:

...it imprisons us in a nationalist framework of analysis without our even realizing it. If we approach US history as “the history of the United States as a distinct national entity,” we adopt all sorts of implicit assumptions about what is significant, what is historical–indeed, even what is human.... We may not see it, but we work from the same agenda that the most militant slaveholders, Indian-hunters, and xenophobes pursued. If we norm the “nation,” all else becomes abnormal.
The problem here is that Gannon is starting from the point of rejecting the traditional foundation of all historical study, not merely that of slaveholders and xenophobes. The Western tradition of historical scholarship is rooted in exactly the adoption of implicit assumptions about significance that will exclude people from the narrative, even if they had some relevance to it. I could go back to Herodotus or Thucydides to illustrate this point, but instead I'll stick with the English-speaking world and look to Bede.

Bede's preface to his his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, addressed to King Ceowulf (ruler of Northumbria, Bede's home in the northeast of England), refers to the monarch's 'eager desire to know of the doings and sayings of men of the past, and of famous men of your own nation in particular' [my italics]. Bede's understanding of 'nation', however, is rather different to ours. Bede's nation encompassed all those who spoke English, including people who lived in Essex, Sussex, Wessex and Mercia, distinct kingdoms each. Despite that quite explicit assumption that he is writing about his nation, Bede manages to race through about seven hundred years of history of his 'continent', in this case the island of Britain, in a few pages.

But it is only a few pages. Because he writes an ecclesiastical history, Bede is not much concerned with a pagan pre-literate history he cannot access, nor with the interaction of the Roman province of Britannia with the rest of the empire. He devotes more space to St Alban than to the emperors Claudius, Severus or Constantine, who in different ways all had claims on great significance in the history of Britain. Yet St Alban and St Germanus, important to a history of British Christianity, remain minor figures in Bede's narrative. He is writing about the English, and so his ecclesiastical history really begins with the mission of St Augustine of Canterbury, who sought to convert the pagan Angles and Saxons. Would Bede's account of the English people and their church been improved by integrating a longer narrative about British Christianity? Probably not, because Bede's interest was in how things came to be, not how they ought to be. He includes those interactions between the two he thinks are important to the history of English Christianity.

Gannon's proposal would be an excellent one for a course about the United States in North American history, but it defeats the objective of teaching US history. Indeed, I don't quite understand Gannon's resentment of a nationalist framework. It was exactly this pursuit of a nationalist framework that did much to advance the causes of African-American and American Indian history. In those cases, though, the nationalism was of those peoples and, at least in the case of the former, stopped short of embracing separatism. Gannon's course would undermine the very concept of the United States as a polity capable of addressing external forces because it reduces the polity to a hateful elite. Indeed, it would assist those forces that are creating our future world of networked global nodes overseen by a corporatised transnational elite. Polities like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica and Guiana are the vehicles by which ordinary working people have some hope of influencing this global elite on their behalf. Besides slave-holders and Indian-hunters, that US history includes other aspects that should provide food for thought to progressives like Gannon. The United States is also a history of oppressed white workers, in the indentured servants from the British Isles who laboured in the fields beside Africans in mid-seventeenth-century Virginia. It is a history of religious liberty, whether of the Pennsylvania Dutch who found sanctuary outside of Europe but within the dominion of a Hanoverian monarchy or Mormons moving teleologically westwards. It is a history of resistance to a racist political structure. These people are just as much part of a nationalist framework as the villains listed by Gannon. History courses are the major means of constructing a coherent political identity from people who might care to look beyond red, white, black and brown.

Indeed, if we are going to pin labels on people, why can't we accuse the American Indians of being eco-terrorists for contributing to extinctions, of being anti-immigrant and being slave masters themselves. It just becomes an absurd game influenced by politics rather than scholarship. It is systems, not people, for historians to hold to account in this context. What we need to do is acknowledge our assumptions and understand why they are necessary, rather than throw out old assumptions for new ones.

Back to Bede, to whom I will give the last word. He goes on, after the quote I cited earlier, to give some good advice to all practitioners of history, although let us excuse this faithful religious his eighth-century assumptions about morality -- 'For if history records good things of good men, the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good: or if it records evil of wicked men, the devout, religious listener or reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse and to follow what he knows is good and pleasing to God.'

[Quotes from the Penguin Classics edition of Bede, translated by Leo Sherley-Price.]

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