Decline and Fall of the History Men

Historical awareness is no longer seen as the cornerstone of a good education. We are falling victim to cultural amnesia

Are we living through the end of history? Not in the Hegelian sense that Francis Fukuyama used the phrase in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, meaning that with the triumph of liberal democracy, world history had reached its ultimate goal. As subsequent events have shown, this was a case of wishful thinking by a political scientist, not a historian. 

No, I mean the end of history as the central pillar of high culture and national identity. History in this sense is not the same as historiography or historical scholarship, of which there is more than ever before. Nor is it the same as the popularisation of history, history as pure entertainment, which is also flourishing. What has become problematic is the assumption that general historical knowledge, an informed consciousness of our past, is the essential framework for Western civilisation. It is the decline of history in this sense that lies behind the heated debates about the teaching of history at school and university. The loss of such a temporal dimension has brought about a profound change in the outlook of the West: a loss of organic connection, not only with those who came before us, but with our place in the world. Clive James memorably described this phenomenon as “cultural amnesia”, and Eric Voegelin adopted the theological concept of “anamnesis” to describe our attempts to preserve transcendent memories. Yet such remembrances of time past, whether they express rage against the dying of the light of history as a force in intellectual life, or acquiescence in its oblivion, are at best rearguard actions.

That an educated person could lack such historical awareness would not have occurred to the 19thcentury apostles of high culture, the Mills and Arnolds, père et fils, or the brothers Humboldt and James. The 18thcentury philosophes had tried to create a “philosophical” or “conjectural” history of mankind, as Anthony Pagden writes in his encyclopaedic new book The Enlightenment (OUP, £20). “The purpose of these histories was . . . not only descriptive — it was emancipatory. In providing a proper scientific understanding of the origin and evolution of the human condition, they would, it was hoped, release man from his servitude to . . . prejudice.” In the 19th century, however, this emancipatory impetus was allied to the romantic cult of genius, which gave weight to what Max Weber would later call “charisma”. History was the story of liberty, but also of the liberator. To be human was to be an actor on the stage of history; the human sciences were those governed by the historical method. To have a place in the history books was not only the definition of fame, but the very purpose and meaning of life.

Among the most remarkable and influential of these Victorian polymaths was Thomas Babington Macaulay. He was among the greatest essayists, poets, orators and historians of an age that excelled in all these accomplishments. Yet it is not for any of these that he most deserves to be celebrated today, according to his latest biographer, Zareer Masani. In his splendid and original Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist (Bodley Head, £20), Masani evokes a recent birthday party in Delhi for the eminent Victorian, given by the intellectuals of the Dalit community and their liberal supporters. The Dalits, the modern name for pariahs, were (and in some places still are) treated as untouchable by the higher castes. They revere Macaulay as the man who gave India the English language, British education, freedom of the press and the rule of law. English, the world’s lingua franca, has enabled India’s untouchables to connect with the world. It was Macaulay’s famous Education Minute of 1835 that set out to create “a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” This Anglophone administrative and commercial class became known as “Macaulay’s children”. Macaulay’s Minute, in Masani’s enthusiastic words, “outlined an imperial mission more ambitious and global than any since ancient Rome”.

It was the experience of India that inspired Macaulay to write his Lays of Ancient Rome, with their apotheosis of Horatius — his Roman role model for the English schoolboy. Macaulay’s greatest monument is his History of England from the Reign of James II, in which he demonstrated to a vast and admiring public his guiding principle: “The history of England is emphatically the history of progress.” No other intellectual pursuit could compare with history as a vehicle for inculcating the virtues of the English gentleman. Hence the teaching of British history was imperative.

Macaulay had set out his manifesto already in 1824, in his maiden speech on behalf of the AntiSlavery Society, founded by his father, the leading abolitionist Zachary Macaulay. “[Britain’s] mightiest empire,” he declared, “is that of her manners, her language and her laws; her proudest victories, those which she has achieved over ignorance and ferocity; her most durable trophies, those which she has erected in the hearts of civilised and liberated nations.” The relationship between Zachary’s abolitionism and Tom’s imperialism is the theme of another fine recent work, Catherine Hall’s Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain (Yale, £35.99). But it is striking that, whereas the Indian Zareer Masani is unequivocal in his approval of Macaulay’s imperial mission, his British counterpart Catherine Hall is eager to apologise for his typically Victorian racism and elitism.  

Victorians incorporated history into every branch of education, public life and the arts, but not everybody shared Macaulay’s optimistic view of history as progress. One rival school was that of Thomas Carlyle, who replaced emancipation and enlightenment with heroworship of the great man. His leading disciple was James Anthony Froude, whose magisterial History of England did much to establish the dynastic primacy of the Tudors in the popular imagination. His life has only just received the attention it deserves from Ciaran Brady, whose superb biography James Anthony Froude: An Intellectual Biography of a Victorian Prophet (OUP, £45) traces the serpentine twists and turns of Froude’s life, from his abusive childhood through his abortive careers as a clergyman and a novelist, to his triumph as a historian, editor and man of letters. Only in old age did he reenter the academic world, as Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, and his inaugural lecture of 1892 may be taken as a valedictory reflection on the Victorian love affair with history. Froude rejected the contemporary pieties: history was not a science, it did not move from the particular to the general, it was not a record of human progress or freedom, it was inseparable from prejudice, it had no pattern or meaning. Instead, history was a drama, an art, an attempt to understand humanity but not to explain it. Thus, in the high noon of the nation state, with the newly discovered past annexed by the triumphantly liberal present in the service of future progress, voices were raised against the hegemony of history. It was not in the Anglosphere, however, but in continental Europe, and Germany in particular, that the backlash against history began.

In 1874, the young Friedrich Nietzsche published On the Use and Abuse of History for Life. This “untimely” or “unfashionable” essay might have been directed at the propaganda of the Prussian school of historians, which presented the German Empire, newly unified by Bismarck, as inevitable. But Nietzsche’s notion of the “abuse of history” had a very different target. What troubled him was the burden of living in a culture so saturated in the knowledge of the past, so paralysed by its “ironical selfconsciousness”, that it seemed to him to have been born “greyhaired”. Around him he saw the human consequences of the explosion of historical knowledge and education since the Enlightenment. He could not stomach the liberal religion of progress, which had recently enlisted the support of Darwinian evolution: “Never has the view of history soared so high, not even in its own dreams, for now the history of humanity is merely the continuation of the history of animals and plants. Indeed, even in the depths of the ocean the historical universalist discovers the traces of himself in living slime.” Nietzsche cannot contain his contempt for the overconfident complacency of his contemporaries. “Overproud European of the nineteenth century, you are stark raving mad! Your [historical] knowledge does not perfect nature, but only kills your own nature. Just measure the wealth of your knowledge against the poverty of your abilities.”

Nietzsche has never enjoyed the influence in Britain that he still has in America and on the Continent (cf American Nietzsche by Jennifer RatnerRosenhagen). But this root and branch critique of history led to the “revaluation of all values”, the idea that individuals can and must create their own morality. His subversion of history as inimical to “life” anticipated the antihistorical reaction of modernism, which by the late 20th century had morphed into a “postmodernism” which was radically relativistic and hence even more hostile to the fixed points of history and the canonical works of high culture that went with it. Not only were certain kinds of history discredited — for example, what Herbert Butterfield called the Whig interpretation of history, the idea of history as progress — but history itself was marginalised, in favour of less rigorous disciplines.

Going up to Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1975, I was fortunate enough to read history at a time when the subject had not yet been hollowed out by the elimination of facts and dates, when a grasp of the broad sweep of British and European history was taken for granted among the educated, and certainly among those who aspired to lead the country. I belonged to the last generation before the abolition of grammar schools, which still placed a premium on wide reading and the acquisition of historical knowledge for its own sake. Within a decade, that kind of education had come to be seen as a privilege of the welltodo. David Cameron would still have enjoyed such an education at Eton; yet as prime minister he was stumped by a question about what “Magna Carta” might mean. Today, I wonder how much history even those with degrees in the subject are actually expected to have read. The reaction to Michael Gove’s new history curriculum suggests that many teachers don’t relish the thought of inculcating knowledge rather than “skills”.

Undergraduates who went up to Oxford to read modern history in the mid1970s found themselves examined in their first term on four historical classics: Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Macaulay’s History of England, Alexis de Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Régime et la Revolution and the Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (“Reflections on World History”) by Nietzsche’s Swiss friend and mentor, Jacob Burckhardt. These texts suited the taste of the Regius Professor, Hugh TrevorRoper, himself a great historian both of the 17th and 20th centuries whose works had literary as well as academic merit. He was married to the Edwardian daughter of Earl Haig, and himself enough of a Victorian to insist on academic gowns at his lectures. His chosen historians were not such sticklers for academic proprieties. Only one (Burckhardt) ever taught at a university, though he spent most of his time on tour as a connoisseur of Italian art; the only one who had been to Oxford (Gibbon) was removed from Magdalen College by his father in disgrace, having been converted to Catholicism, and sent to Lausanne for religious detox by Swiss Calvinists at the tender age of 16. As a man of letters with a large private income, Gibbon belonged to the world of private scholarship and was scathing about Oxford in his autobiography. Jeremy Jennings writes about Tocqueville elsewhere in this issue of Standpoint (page 61), but he too was a traveller, an aristocrat and a minister rather than a professor. Macaulay, by contrast, TrevorRoper could not include among his “immortals”: he mocked “that infallible, that vulgar egotism”, not to mention the Victorian prudishness. “No, he won’t do.” In his Wartime Journals he quotes Macaulay on William III and Frederick the Great, accused of “abominations as foul as those which are buried under the waters of the Dead Sea” (i.e. homosexuality). “Had Macaulay read the classics in vain,” TrevorRoper told his friends, “that he reacts to an interesting psychological phenomenon as if he were a provincial nonconformist grocer?” 

Looking back, I see TrevorRoper as one of the last historians in the grand tradition of Gibbon and Macaulay, but perhaps also one of its gravediggers. Today his chair, Froude’s chair, is occupied by Lyndal Roper, an Australian specialist on witchcraft in early modern Germany. I intend no disrespect to Professor Roper when I say that she is not exactly a household name. Not only has the Oxford school of history squandered its preeminence: history in general has retreated into the ivory tower, or lies rolling in the gutter.

Michael Gove, the first minister for a generation to care enough about history to wish to restore it to the privileged place in the nation’s intellectual life that it once enjoyed, has encountered bitter opposition, not from philistines and barbarians, but from the historians themselves. Gove’s emphasis on testing knowledge rather than “skills” in his proposed new curriculum would once have gained approval from the dons and the schools. Not, however, from their successors. Today, Michael Gove faces a hostile historical profession alone but for a few trusty defenders. Like Macaulay’s Horatius, he stands defiant on the bridge: 

And how can man die better

Than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers,

And the temples of his Gods?

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