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时间:2021-10-08 10:00 来源: Essay代写






Whereas historical scholarship is prospering and is constantly moving into new and uncharted territories, the teaching of history seems to be in a serious crisis in terms of student enrollment and its public prestige. This is true at least in some countries and is especially so with respect to the teaching of eras which precede the twentieth century. The present article seeks to explore some of the reasons for this crisis, and proposes a few arguments which can provide a raison d’être for the study of history at the beginning of the twenty-first century. While history is no longer regarded simply as magistra vitae, nor is it the foundation for competing ideologies as it used to be in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, there are very important cultural functions, beyond sheer intellectual curiosity, that the study of history fulfills, functions which can, and should, be emphasized also to the public at large. Chief among them is the need to come to terms with rapid change in society and human affairs, a need which is especially acute nowadays, and which only the discipline of history is equipped to deal with systematically.

KEYWORDS: crisis of historical teaching; purpose of historical teaching; historical change; historical time; historical relevance.

The teaching of history seems to be in a serious crisis. At least this is the impression of many practicing historians. Although statistical data point to a certain stability, even a modest rise in recent years in the absolute number of history students in some countries like the U.S and Great Britain, relatively to other disciplines like some of the Social Sciences (particularly Business Administration) and of course, computer studies - the status of history is clearly in decline . Whereas the discipline of history is thriving in terms of the level, richness and fresh perspectives of its research, there are relatively less young students choosing to study history at the University level. And as we all know, academic budgets are constantly being cut, especially in the humanities, including history. The teaching of history in high schools is similarly in decline in terms of hours, content, and surely of prestige, once again, particularly in comparison with the teaching of the Sciences. The tendency to focus on limited issues, mainly pertaining to the recent (often–national) past, that of the twentieth century, also cripples a serious, long-term, understanding of history. This is clearly noticeable in my own country, Israel, and, I believe, in many other countries as well. In the long run, this situation threatens the state of the discipline as a whole, first of all, because fewer Ph.D. graduates in history are able to find jobs, and secondly, since these trends may ultimately lead to a sharp decrease in the number of young historians.


There are several reasons for this crisis, besides the overall crisis of higher education, especially in the humanities. They are quite well-known, but let me mention some principal ones. First of all, there is a long-term epistemological crisis. Our discipline as a scholarly discipline largely developed, as we all know, in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century under a rather clear and unitary paradigm. That paradigm assumed an objective historical reality (similar, though by no means identical to natural reality), independent of the historian-observer, requiring a rigorous critical method by which to reach that historical reality . It also assumed the intentionality of the historical agents (mostly political leaders, generals and members of the elite), and a linear progress towards modernity. Within that paradigm, sometimes called the “Whig interpretation of history” - Western Civilization, secular, scientific, technological, industrial and democratic, was seen as an end-point towards which, whether directly or indirectly, all human societies were supposed to develop. (For a classical critique of this view see Butterfield, 1965). This “meta-narrative” has gradually given place in the twentieth century to a socio-economic view of history, whether of the Marxist type, or of the structuralist version of the Annales school (Iggers, 2005, Chapters 5–7). Both the political and the socio-economic paradigms, however - the second even more than the first - shared a wish to be as “scientific” as possible, if not on the model of the Natural Sciences, at least on that of the Social Sciences. Since the 1950s, however, the first, political paradigm, started to decline, and in the 1970, the social-economic paradigm similarly came under increasing criticism. These changes were the combined result of disenchantment with politics, a belated reaction, perhaps, to the Second World War and the Holocaust, the processes of de-colonization, the revival of religious movements, and the growing skepticism towards modern scientific and industrial culture (Iggers, 2005, pp. 97–100). The plurality of narratives which have come in their stead, especially in the last generation, have given a real boost to the richness and variety of historical scholarship, but led on their part to growing skepticism and disenchantment among the public at large. (For a forceful critique of these skeptical implications, while still accepting, indeed–promoting, the centrality of narratives in historical discourse see Ginzburg, 1999). Why study history if it does not tell us a coherent story on the basis of which we can base our values, fortify our view of the world, and even make reasonable predictions with respect to the future? Furthermore, if historians themselves keep stressing the tentative, even subjective and relative, character of the picture they present to students, why bother studying such accounts? If indeed (following Hayden White and many others) the difference between history and literature, between allegedly “scholarly research” and creative fiction is narrowing down, if not completely obliterated, why subject oneself to the rigorous traditional techniques of the discipline, when one can enjoy just as well a good novel, movie or theatrical play? Personally, I think that this skeptical critique has gone much too far and I am worried by the extent to which some practicing historians have accepted that radical critique. In between a naïve view of “objective”, “scientific” history, and a skeptical view which sees all historical narratives as just another type of fiction, I believe that there is a vast territory of critical discourse which can and should sustain responsible historical scholarship, but I shall return to this point below.

The epistemological crisis was linked with a more specific political one. Our academic profession developed in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth to a great extent under the auspices of the nation-state. In many respects, it was conceived as fortifying and enhancing the nation-state (hence its emphasis on the political dimension of history). For that reason, the historical profession also received the strong support of the State (Iggers, 2005, Chapters 1,2; Krieger, 1977). Historians (though by no means all of them) were at the forefront of building-up national identities in the traditional states of Europe, and even more so, in the new nations outside of Europe. They did so by uncovering, and reconstructing the national past, and by conveying it, in teaching and in writing, to future generations, thus contributing to (or even establishing) a collective memory. As late as 1985, a prominent American historian like William McNeill tended to link historical knowledge with certain collective myths, calling them “Mythistory”, while expecting them to be critically constructed” (McNeill, 1986). That same decade of the 1980s saw, however, the growing interest (and, once again - the growing skepticism!) concerning the relationship between “history” and “memory” . The so-called “New historians” have increasingly cast doubt on the conventional narratives, collective memories or “myths”, which have served as the basis for these national identities, calling them “imagined communities” based on “invented traditions” . The jury is still out on the issue how “invented” national identities really are, but in the public eyes, the “myths breakers” are more visible (and vocal) than scholars who still accept the validity of concepts such as “ethnic identity” and “national traditions”. Indeed, historians are moving nowadays away, not only from national histories, but also from an exclusive focus on Western history. The growing interest in universal history, or World history, and the pursuit of the means and techniques by which to teach it to students, is surely one of the most promising ways to overcome the present crisis and make history teaching “relevant” once again.  

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