History Not a Matter of Fact

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), October 11, 2002 | Go to article overview

History Not a Matter of Fact


Byline: RHODRI EVAN S

SIMON SCHAMA might be the most-watched historian on British T V.

But when it comes to a history of Britain, well, his version of events is so thin you could put your fist through it. And as for his views that the teaching of A-level history is both narrow and fragmented, Mr Schama's not really qualified to say.

Someone who knows is Dai Smith, former head of English broadcasting at BBCWales and now professor of history at the University of Glamorgan.

So he has a foot in each of the same TV and education camps inhabited by Schama.

He says Schama's storytelling skates over the depths of history and promulgates an anglo-centric view which emphasised kings and queens ahead of ordinary people.

``What lies behind this is a long debate that has been going on since the 1960s about the divergence between narrative history and cultural history,'' said Professor Smith. ``The problem with the debate is that it doesn't have to be an either/or situation.

``If you look at what is going on in the schools there is still the opportunity to do great sweeps of history, and that is part of the historians' craft - understanding the framework within which the particular event takes place.

``To understand Hitler without being aware of what was happening in 19th-century Germany would be to not understand Hitler.

``The reason we have Black History Month and concentrations on children's history and gender history is that these are all ways of allowing people to come to grips with their particular perspectives.

``Schama is right that a story has to be told, history is about places, events and accidents but it is also about individuals; you don't need to throw out any baby with the bath water. There are different types of history written by historians for different purposes.

``I was very much aware back in the 1970s and '80s when I was engaged in Welsh history that the enemy was the history teachers who were so wrapped up in the broad orthodox sweep, that they had imbibed in university, that they were quite afraid of taking the leap into the understanding of the industrial history of South Wales which would give their pupils an understanding of their own history and culture.''

Professor Smith is critical of what he sees as Professor Schama's pontificating, especially over A-levels.

``I suspect he has never taught in a school and not in communities where particular kinds of history are desired,'' he said.

``From his grand heights of Oxford, Cambridge and the BBC he swoops over us like some bloody great eagle.

``He's currently engaged in a narrative history of Britain - some people think it's so thin you could put your fist through it. ``Before that he tried to turn the French Revolution on its head - which made professional historians shudder.''

Professor Smith does recognise the value of some of Schama's work but he believes the TV academic is in no position to lecture other historians on how the subject should be taught.

``I think Schama has written some very fine books - particularly his early work on the Dutch republic of the 17th Century,'' he said.

``He is a very gifted literary historian but he skates over a lot of thin ice. I think when he pontificates about other historians we need to say, `come off it Simon'. …

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