3 June 2008

On history

A few posts down reader and frequent commenter on this blog Vox asked about James over at Toronto Catholic writing a history. Vox is of the opinion James could write a good definitive history, which is neither here nor there at the moment and will be saved for later, but rather inspires a question: What makes a good history?

Years ago in the first year of my first degree I rounded out my course list by taking a course in Canadian History. The main professor of that course was a man whose name I won't mention. Hist lectures, which lasted two hours with a break in the middle, were an endurance test to rival any triathalon. His lectures were short on substance, so he dragged them out through repetition, earning from us the nickname "Captain Paraphrase" in the process. His lectures were filled with phrases like the thrilling "That is to say..." or the gripping "To put it another way..." or the exciting "To sum up...". And that was just for one point. He would stare at lectern with an almost furious concentration as he read his notes, never once looking up or taking notice of the yawning sea of students before him, all struggling mightily to remain awake. In later years, when I read the Harry Potter books, I found myself thinking of him when I read about the character Professor Binns, the ghostly history professor who could make a bloody history of war and rebellion as interesting as a shopping list, and for whom death was ultimately redundant. My lecturer, I should add, was a leader in his field, and the author of several definitive books, some of which may be collecting dust on a bookshelf at a university near you.

The leader of my tutorial for that class was a man of a completely different stripe. His name was William Kilbourn. He was affable and gregarious, funny and cheerful. His main work was a book entitled "The Firebrand," easily the most readable biography of William Lyon McKenzie, though by no means the definitive biography. He deliberately sacrificed the style favoured by academics in order to create a book that was readable in order that people may actually read it. When some historians criticized him for writing a book that read like a novel, his response was a genuine thanks.

This was a trait he shared with a friend of his, Pierre Berton, famous Canadian historian. Academic and professional historians looked down their noses at the pair, who set out to write histories that were readable and narrative, rather than up to the moment on the latest historical theories and jargon. The academic historian- or almost any academic for that matter, as I found in the department I ultimately chose- hides their subject as much as they reveal it. They choose obscure terms and underpin their works with theoretical assumptions that only come from years of tedious study, and thus they leave the ordinary person behind. In so doing, they very often defeat the purpose of writing and teaching. Nobody will learn if nobody reads.

In the 1590's English courtier, soldier, translator and poet Sir Philip Sidney wrote a brief treatise called "A Defense of Poetry." The core of his defense was his simple definition of poetry: It was a form of mimesis, he wrote, whose purpose was to teach and delight. The two went hand in hand, he explained, for delight without lessons are mere vanity, and lessons without delight are tedium, and nothing will be learnt. But to mix the two together a student will take delight in the lessons, and learn almost without knowing it.

Having briefly been a teacher myself, I can say there is much to this point. Many teachers, and professors and school boards treat their students, to use W.B. Yeats' simile, like a bucket to be filled, when instead students should be treated as a fire to be kindled. To arouse their interest and draw the student into the topic, to help them want to learn- that is the true work, that is the true labour.

So those who make history dull as earth, whether deliberately or through incompetence, will never teach. Writers like Berton and Kilbourn, though their works hardly ever show up on history course text lists, whose works are sneered at by the academics, have educated far more people than these dullards ever will.

Having said that, I return to the question of James: Would his history be a good definitive history? On a few grounds, not likely. "Definitive" is a word most often associated with academics, and he is steering clear of that. Secondly, he is not trying to be definitive. His writing over at Toronto Catholic has been a kind of Jack Horner routine: He's sticking in his thumb and pulling out a few of the juicier plums from Toronto's Catholic past. Perhaps if he gets enough of them together, he may assemble a fuller history. But definitive? No. The last word is never written.

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