Monday, September 04, 2006

Which History Will They Teach?

Arthur Macmilllan, Education Correspondent (Scotland on Sunday 3 September),
reports on an initiative from history teachers in Scotland, concerned about their marginalisation as a separate subject in the school curriculum:

However, the new syllabus, titled: History and a Curriculum for Excellence, lays down a detailed series of the historic events that children should study and when. For example, local history will dominate schooling until the end of Primary Three, with the next two years being used to learn about the "Making of the Scottish Nation".

Primary Six will focus on the religious upheaval caused by the Reformation, and later the Act of Union with England (1707). The last year of primary school will be dominated by the Highland Clearances but also see pupils learning about the Enlightenment, including the Scottish economist Adam Smith and the philosopher David Hume, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.”

Whilst I am always in favour of history as a subject, I am always concerned as much with what is taught as history. In my two areas of expertise on 18th century history, Captain Bligh in the 18th century Royal Navy (‘Captain Bligh, the man and his mutinies’, Duckworth, 1988) and Adam Smith on 18th century moral philosophy (‘Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy’, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), I am less than impressed with what passes for accurate accounts of either man or the institutions in which they worked.

I recently read Michael Fry’sWild Scots: four hundred years of Highland history’, 2005, and I doubt if much of his critical perspective on myths and exaggerations about the Highlands that are common folklore in Scotland (and among the Scottish Diaspora) will feature in a Scottish profession dominated by those who transmit, and have a political interest in transmitting, the same ‘myths and exaggerations’ to school children.

Of course, should they get to university and continue their history studies they may correct some of the obvious mythology about our nation’s past. Perhaps we should relax and accept that ‘history is but a fable agreed upon’ (a much better view than ‘history is bunk’), and should be pleased that history in some form will remain in the Scottish school syllabus, and remain as a distinct view of history from a Scottish perspective in place of the usual English view.

Smith certainly took an historical viewpoint on what caused wealth creation from the fall of Rome (476) to the 18th century in the context of a social-evolutionary theory of the Ages of Man (from Hunters to Merchants and Manufacturers in Commerce, via Shepherds and Farmers) and laid great stress on all the factors that influenced the course of events.

Unfortunately, economists from the late 19th century (Walras, Jevons) abandoned ‘looking outside their windows’ and created ‘thought experiments’ that were susceptible to mathematics, by dumping anything not suitable to becoming an argument in a function as ‘exogenous’, where not simply surplus to requirements. If they teach along these strtaight-forward neo-classical lines, well and good, but if it is the usual Chicago nonsense of Smith the ‘father’, high priest’ or ‘founder’ of ‘capitalism’ and author of the ‘theory of the invisible hand in markets’, then, frankly, they shouldn’t bother - though, of course, no doubt they will.


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