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The Public Face of History

Deepak Kumar

By Geoff Timmins , Keith Vernon & Christine Kinealy
Sage Publications, London, 2005, pp. xiv 250, price not stated.

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 10 October 2005

History has always been an exceptionally fertile yet contested terrain. For centuries it has been studied, written, rewritten, used, abused, quoted with pride, cited as curse but seldom ignored. Now in the wake of globalization, multiculturalism and the demands of knowledge economy, what does it mean to learn and speak about the past? What skills and values does history education impart? And how could these be taught? This book offers some plausible explanations. It examines with a surgeon’s skill the pedagogy of history teaching.   There is no doubt that history, culture and identity remain persistently volatile material. In India we know the controversies surrounding the NCERT textbooks, the national curriculum framework and the CABE. In the US some argue, would too much emphasis on difference and diversity foster factionalism, sectarianism and social discord of which there was already so much? In the UK throughout the 80s and the 90s the Tory politicians tried to encourage a return to Victorian values. A History Working Group was appointed and there was subtle pressure to give more attention to positive and ‘progressive’ stories of British history. This was resented by the historians and the government retaliated by announcing that history would not be a compulsory subject beyond the age of fourteen!   Well, sanitized representation of the past offer comforting myths and an uncritical perspective. Those in power may prefer it. But then the discipline suffers. As this book argues, history has a public face; it is a central component of civic and national identity and so has responsibilities and is answerable to a popular audience. But should history remain only a vehicle of citizenship training, the authors ask. In the face of commodification of higher education what still remains of the liberal and humane project of appreciating the human past? Can one find an irreducible core of the discipline that binds historians together as historians? Earlier anthropology illuminated cultural history. Later the tropes of literary narratives laid bare the disjunctures between different historical texts. Now television and blockbuster films inform the popular understanding of the past. So is history in crisis? No, the authors seem to comfort us, ‘not in crisis so much but perhaps somewhat punch-drunk and in need of a period of more healthy introspection’.   Repeatedly the authors refer to a (somewhat dubious and straitjacket) History Benchmarking Statement of 2000. This statement talks of the historians’ skills, content criteria, progression between ...

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