In the first half of my long teaching career I thought of myself as being a History and English teacher in that order, despite my honours degree being in English. Indeed, at Illawarra Grammar, where I was a colleague of the John Traas mentioned in the comments on yesterday’s entry on playwright Alex Buzo, I was for a time History Co-ordinator, and I recall making passionate speeches there on the centrality of that subject. I still feel strongly about the importance of history. So on one point at least I agree with John Howard at yesterday’s History Summit: History should be (as it still is in NSW) a stand-alone subject. (See also John Hirst’s comments on Radio National’s PM, and Michael Duffy being Michael Duffy on Counterpoint.) The powerful movement since the 1950s to subsume it into Social Studies is and was in part a matter of empire building by Social Studies teachers, and not altogether desirable. My continuing interest in history and historiography is well attested on my blogs: search this one to see a whole range of entries on quite a variety of topics where the search-word “history” will take you.
I studied History at Sydney University in a fortunate moment, looking back on it. Among my Ancient History lecturers in 1960 was Edwin Judge, “distinguished for his studies on the first Roman emperor, Augustus, and still more for his monographs on the social and structural aspects of early Christianity in the Roman empire, and how the Romans responded to it.” In 1961 I (and Philip Ruddock) studied 18th century European History under John McManners and English History under the quite amazing Mr Stephen. I wrote an essay that year on Edward Gibbon. Then in 1962 I came first in Asian History, taught by two more stars: Marjorie Jacobs on India and Ian Nish on China and Japan: see that review of his Japanese Foreign Policy in the Interwar Period: “Numerous scholars have written about Japanese foreign policy in the interwar period, and one is tempted to wonder if yet another account is genuinely needed, but when it comes from the pen of such a senior historian as Ian Nish, the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ Nish has produced an archetypical study through his careful collection of evidence, through his judicious assessments, and through his lucid presentation: in short, this study is a hallmark of professional maturity and sophistication.” That year my essays, more successful than the Gibbon had been, were on Ram Mohan Roy and Mao Tse Tung and Chiang Kai Shek. Very exotic for 1962.
So, good fortune for me, and an approach to History that has never left me. I am not a raging left-winger when it comes to historiography; indeed, I am generally comfortable with Richard Evans, In Defence of History, despite the pomo rubbishing Antony Easthope gives it in that review! But then I am also a great fan of Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, The History Wars. And I actually enjoy Manning Clark, as literature as much as history.
So it was a nice coincidence that yesterday in Deus Lo Vult “Clayton Northcutt” (Thomas) wrote a very strong commendation of a course he is doing at Sydney University right now: Studying imperialism at Sydney University…. This sounds like a course I wish I could have done! While the writer of Deus Lo Vult is given to acts of ventriloquy that have fooled many (me among them) in the past, this entry is in propria persona. I could have a nice chat with him though, were it possible, on the status of “facts” in History. I could have that chat too with John Howard, but he wouldn’t listen. Simply put, there’s a shitload of “facts” out there, more than anyone could ever process. Selection and interpretation are all: that’s where historiography begins, and ever has, from Herodotus to the present day.