History remembered

The historian’s conscience is a companion to Stuart Macintyre’s previous book, The history wars (re-issued 2004). In his earlier work, Macintyre provides an anecdote which illustrates the context in which he is writing and the purpose of both books.

He tells of a school teacher in the 1990s who was appointed by the Victorian Government to prepare curriculum materials on Australian studies. In order to do so, the teacher recruited a post-graduate student from the History Department of the University of Melbourne. After reviewing the proposed materials, the teacher became disturbed by the gloominess of some of the episodes included. During the 1930s Depression, for example, the wealthy were able to buy more because of deflation. Frustrated at this, the teacher finally turned to the white board, which he divided into two halves. He labelled one side, ‘Blainey’, and the other side, ‘Manning Clark’. He explained that the first, referring to the work of Geoffrey Blainey, is ‘good’ history, and the second ‘bad’.

For Macintyre, this story illustrates two disturbing trends that have dominated Australia’s relationship to its own history. The first is how the study and uses of history have been divided into opposing camps. This violates the basic procedures of historical inquiry: the pursuit of objectivity, balanced by the doubt that this can ever be achieved. The second is how this division has resulted in misunderstanding the past. After all, it was Blainey who initially made this point about deflation during the Depression, not Clark.

The purpose of The history wars was to understand how these trends surfaced. In The historian’s conscience, Macintyre, together with 13 other Australian historians, reflect on their profession, in an effort to move beyond the previous narrow polemic of the ‘history wars’.

Macintyre opens this collection of essays by stating the two ‘divergent obligations’ of historians: history as a social science and history as heritage. History as a social science regards the historian as a dispassionate and objective observer. History as heritage sees the historian as an involved custodian of the past. ‘One reworks the past to serve the interests of the present, the other attaches the present to a binding past.’

Yet Macintyre admits this distinction is drawn too starkly. Joy Damousi, in her essay, ‘The emotions of history’, argues that the field of the historian lies somewhere between these two obligations; that it involves maintaining a tension between objective facts and subjective emotion. Alan Atkinson argues that history is primarily a moral discipline; that ‘compassion (I leave sympathy aside) is good history’s main motive’. Yet he warns: ‘Feeling can undermine as well as justify careful thought’.

In saying this, most historians gathered here admit that history shares a family resemblance with literature. Several contributors refer to the fact that historical narratives were originally a form of literature, but with reservation. They still uphold a notion of objectivity, like a guardrail. Yet it has only been recently—with the rise of the social sciences—that historians have adopted the style of scientific discourse. And what none of these historians have said is that while the writing of history stems from early forms of literature, science has its roots in religion. The constant danger here, of course, is that history—like its earlier counterpart, religion—may slip into some form of fundamentalism. And it is here that you start getting into an area which initially contributed to the ‘history wars’, which became in Australia a kind of national religious war.

For ‘objectivity’, ‘detachment’ and ‘truth’—the hallmarks of scientific discourse—are often used to promulgate their opposite number. The guardrail quickly becomes a barrier. Behind every dispassionate and impressively academic apparatus sits an individual historian, in a particular time and place, who—as John Hirst argues, in his revealing and important essay, ‘Changing my mind’—may ‘write from the evidence, but also from [his or her] understanding of how the world works and how they would like it to work’. It is more honest and beneficial if these concerns are clearly evident, rather than lurking beneath, as this latter often acts as a short route to ideology.

But how to counterbalance fiction and ideology? This book suggests that the balancing force is to be found in the reader. Yet this also requires a certain type of history writing, which is not closed, or monological, but open and engaged. Macintyre points to the role of the footnote as an important device in this exchange. Penny Russell argues that footnotes empower ‘readers to make different conclusions, rendering the historian vulnerable to continued reinterpretation ... they inspire most trust when they signal the historian’s refusal of ultimate authority’. This creates an ongoing conversation between historians and the public.

‘It’s this conversation’, Graeme Davison writes, ‘that separates history from ideology or fiction’.    

The historian’s conscience: Australian historians on the ethics of history
Stuart Macintyre (ed). Melbourne University Publishing, 2004. isbn 0 522 85139 8, rrp $29.95

Matthew Lamb is a Brisbane writer.



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