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Why Big Politics Always Counts : THE NEW HISTORY AND THE OLD by Gertrude Himmelfarb (Harvard University Press: $20; 205 pp.)

September 27, 1987|Paul Johnson | Johnson's most recent book is "A History of the Jews" (Harper & Row).

In this valuable collection of essays, Gertrude Himmelfarb comes to grips with two related problems. The first is the replacement of traditional history--the record and analysis of the major events that shape nations and peoples--by the debased versions of social history now fashionable. The second is the consequences of this for society as a whole.

Social history is not new. It is found in the Bible: The Book of Ruth, for instance, is social history, an illuminating supplement to the major political events described in the Book of Judges. The self-conscious writing of social history goes back to at least J. H. Green's "History of the English People" in the mid-Victorian period. But the early social historians saw themselves as redressing the balance. The great G. M. Trevelyan, introducing his English Social History half a century ago, felt there had been rather a lot of political history--he had written a good deal of it himself--and not enough about ordinary men and women. So he was producing "the history of a people with the politics left out." A superb book it was, too, enjoyed by countless readers who used it to supplement their general knowledge of history.

But as with other sensible ideas, this has been carried beyond reason by fanatics and doctrinaires, especially by those academics who got tenure during the big university expansions in the 1960s. The dominant form of study now treats the major political events and constitutional development of national history as unimportant. Himmelfarb relates the case of a young American historian, working on an "in-depth" analysis on a New England town in the second half of the 18th Century. He did not deal at all with the American Revolution and the founding of the United States and denied that these events were crucial. What was crucial, he said, were "the lives and experiences of the mass of the people."

This absurd attitude is itself encouraged by senior academics who dictate the fashions. Himmelfarb claims that many young history graduates who wish to write a Ph.D. theses on political and intellectual history are refused approval by their professors on the grounds that such subjects are "archaic" and "elitist."

The displacement of traditional history by the new fads--psycho history, quanto-history, women's history, ethnic history and so on--is now reflected in history teaching down to primary level, so that many children often emerge from school knowing nothing about their country's past except a blur. It is not uncommon to come across American teen-agers who can tell you very little about the Revolutionary War and know the Civil War only through movies.

In France, where modern history teaching has been shaped entirely by the Annales school, treating actual "events" as trivial compared to the impersonal forces of geography, climate, economic trends and so on, the degree of ignorance among the young is deeply disturbing. In 1983, the French Cabinet discussed a survey that showed that only a third of children entering secondary schools knew the date of the French Revolution. President Mitterand commented: "The deficiency of teaching history has become a national danger."

In Britain, not long ago, I came across a high school senior specializing in history who knew nothing of Edward I, England's great king, or Oliver Cromwell, its greatest Republican. They had not been covered in the syllabus, which dealt almost exclusively with impersonal social history.

Moreover, as Himmelfarb shows, when traditional history is completely displaced, what takes over is often not history at all but forms of covert left-wing propaganda. She quotes one senior high school exercise that "assembles students representing 19th-Century German liberals, conservatives, Catholics, socialists and feminists with Chancellor Bismarck. Representatives from each discussion group "confront" Bismarck, expressing their approval or disapproval of his policies and confessing whether they have "sold out" to him.

Of course no such "confrontation" took place and the concept of feminists lining up to face Bismarck is wildly anachronistic. The students are thus being taught the worst of all historical sins, to project back into an earlier age the (left-wing) preoccupations of their own day. They are taking part not in a history lesson but in a piece of misleading play-acting.

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