Thursday, November 17, 2005

42. What Is History? by Edward Hallett Carr

What is History? book pictureThe principal of the school I'm teaching at lent me this book, when I we were discussing ways to approach the 10th grade history class I'm covering for the month of November. It's a series of lectures from the early '60s by a Cambridge professor and covers very broadly the history of the study and philosophy of history.

He looks at the relationship between the historian and history, the relationship between historical facts and theories, the place for morality in history, the role of accident and causality in history, the concept of history as progress and how these notions have changed through time. It's an excellent survey of historiography, seen primarily through examples of European historians in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. He is a moderate and progressive thinker, arguing for a balanced approach to history that takes into account both sides of the various arguments:

"The historian and the facts of history are necessary to one another. The historian without his facts is rootless and futile; the facts without their historian are dead and meaningless. My first answer, therefore to the question What is history?, is that it is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past."

He builds from these balances and develops a rich and nuanced overview to the state of history today, with a progressive conclusion that calls for historians and society to recognize the dynamic state of change in the world and not stay stuck in the structures of the past.

I studied history in college, so most of the ideas in this book were not new to me. Some of them I studied quite explicitly and others were implicit in whatever else was being studied. But I never had a chance to read them all summarized as an overall study of the discipline in such a concise, clear and well-written manner. Had I the patience and the mental sophistication to read this book in my first or second year, I would have had a much better appreciation of the discipline as a whole and my mind would have been much better prepared to approach the work. I think this is an excellent book for someone who likes history and politics but hasn't really studied it in any depth. It will open your eyes to very important concepts of interpretation and give you a much more sophisticated understanding of what you are being told about history when you read it or see it in other media.

Personally, I was also quite inspired (as you can probably tell by the length of this posting) and it made me feel that desire to just focus on one historical period and study the shit out of it. Unfortunately, I also still seem to have real difficulty reading non-fiction, where I just phase out for whole paragraphs, even pages and have to force myself to re-read them several times. I had it in college and it hasn't gotten much better (though my motivation to read the material has). I'm just a distractable person and in these wired days, there is too much competing information. So that dream of intense, focused scholarship is one more on the Theoretical Project World shelf. But I'm happy to know that my love of history is still there.

As for the class I'm subbing, I have to cover 100 years of material (including Canada's three most significant political developments) in roughly 12 hours of class using only a skinny textbook that has whittled out anything but the most basic facts. So we're taking notes and memorizing.


Buzby said...

This is a great book. I read it towards the end of my senior year and actually used a passage from it at the beginning of my thesis. E.H. Carr has written a lot of other books about European history that are well worth reading. The Twenty Years' Crisis, which is a book about inter-war Europe, is a partciularly good one.

Jason L said...

Nice work keeping the intellectual level high on the stretch run. I, on the other hand, am slowly sinking down to Dr. Seuss levels.

OlmanFeelyus said...

I'm alternating between slightly easier to read books and ones that carry more intellectual weight and prestige. But I'm keeping the harder ones short in length. That's important at this point in the 50 books quest. No sense in picking up Trollope in mid-November or something in French!

Buz, that's cool you quoted Carr in your thesis. Next time I'm over, show it to me.