Keith Windschuttle: The Misguided Emphasis on Social History and Oppressed Groups

Roundup: Talking About History

Keith Windschuttle, in the Sydney Line (June 2004):

... [I]n the writing and teaching of history today, the views that are in the ascendancy are those that support a skepticism about the pursuit of objectivity and truth, and those that want to replace political and military history and their focus on great men, with social history and its focus on minority or disadvantaged groups.

I want to argue today that the direction history is now taking is a big mistake.

I'll start with the postmodernist view of historical truth and quote one of its advocates, the Manning Clark Professor of History at the Australian National University, Anne Curthoys, who has written:

Many academics in the humanities and social sciences … now reject … the notion that one can objectively know the facts. The processes of knowing, and the production of an object that is known, are seen as intertwined. Many take this even further, and argue that knowledge is entirely an effect of power, that we can no longer have any concept of truth at all.

There are two things wrong with this view. First, if we can no longer have any concept of truth, that is, if there are no truths, then the statement"there are no truths" cannot itself be true. It is an obvious self-contradiction. Second, this is a silly thing to say because we have very good knowledge not only about some things that happened in history but many thousands, perhaps even millions of things. For instance, we know all the names of all the leaders of all the nations for at least the past two hundred years and most of the leaders for many centuries before that as well. We know for certain the historical fact that John Howard has been Prime Minister of Australia since 1996 and that John Curtin was Australia's Prime Minister for most of World War II. We have the same degree of certainty about a great many of the events of history. For example, the statement:"The United States and its allies defeated the Japanese in World War II" is true. It is not a statement about which there can be any doubt at all. The Japanese not only signed a surrender in 1945 but the world would not be the way it is today if this statement wasn't true. Moreover, this is not a statement that is dependent upon some particular cultural vantage point. It is true in American culture, Australian culture, Japanese culture, indeed in every culture on the planet. There is nothing relative about historical truths of this kind.

Let me now turn to the rise of social history and use as an example the National Museum of Australia, which opened in 2001. It was always going to be a museum of history but in the debates over what its contents should be, the view that won out was that it should be a museum of social history. One of its most influential documents argued:

The impact of postmodernism has meant that … triumphalist stories of national progress are no longer intellectually tenable. Many museum practitioners now see their work as a critical practice, committed to drawing out the ways in which constructions of race, class and gender (and sometimes sexuality and age) have shaped national histories.

The result is that most of the people celebrated in the museum's exhibits are those who fit within the categories of"interest group" politics, that is, the politics of feminism, gay liberation, radical environmentalism, and the politics of Aborigines and ethnic groups. The white males who established Australia's political, legal and educational institutions and those who played major roles in building our economy barely rate a mention. The museum has a big electronic map showing the historical spread of introduced pests like rabbits, foxes and prickly pear. But there is no map of the spread of farming, grazing, mining or industry. One of the museum's exhibits celebrates a man who designs dresses for the Gay Mardi Gras in Sydney. Others include environmental activists, anti-nuclear campaigners and the trade unionists who vandalised Parliament House during a riot in 1996. Responding to criticism that the nation had better heroes than these to commemorate, the director took a relativist position:"Heroism," she said,"is in the eye of the beholder."

There are very good reasons, however, why history once paid only a small degree of attention to many of the groups the museum now celebrates, and why it focused so much attention on Anglo-Celts of the male sex. To show why their society took the form it did and how it responded to its major challenges, historians once invoked causes of a political, military, economic and legal nature. Most of the now favoured sexual and ethnic identity groups played only small roles in this account. This was because for most of the time most of these people were not causally effective: they were the objects rather than the agents of history; they were on the receiving end of major historical events, not their instigators.

Now, none of this is meant to argue that you cannot write acceptable histories of women or ethnic groups. It is perfectly legitimate, for instance, to write an account of the history of the domestic activities of Australian women in the First World War, even though those women had little impact on the outcome. Similarly, ethnic histories are obviously important to members of those ethnic groups and there is nothing inherently unscholarly about producing them. However, for a national history or a national museum obliged to tell a national story, the social history approach has serious drawbacks....

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Jimbo Babineaux - 7/2/2004

> young people regurgitate it back ...while silently building enormous contempt for its advocates.

I certainly hope so.

In this I see hope. In coming years that contempt could result in their demanding better accountability from their historians.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/29/2004

It seems to me the vast majority of adults have decided to just ignore the "social history approach," and let the fools who enjoy it have their fun. Meanwhile, our young people regurgitate it back in the classroom as an expedient to getting good grades, while silently building enormous contempt for its advocates. Purveyors of the "social history approach" have made the phrase "politically correct" a universal part of our language.