Tuesday, February 4, 2020


The result, he has concluded, is that sometimes “children no longer know any history.”
Gertrude Himmelfarb, The New History and the Old
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987, 29

It is not surprising to find the same filtering-down process occurring in France, the home of the new history, but it is curious to observe the dismay of the Socialist government when confronted with the practical effects of a social history that is otherwise so congenial to them. In August 1983 a cabinet member discussed a recent survey showing that only a third of the children entering secondary school could give the date of the French Revolution. “The deficiency of teaching history,” François Mitterand declared, “has become a national danger.” Since then there has been much talk, among the parties of the Left as well as of the Right, about the need to restore some sense of political and narrative history, with an emphasis on notable individuals and within a framework of nationality. Even a few Annalistes are beginning to have second thoughts. Marc Ferro, codirector of the Annales and director of studies in the social sciences at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, described the widespread practice in France of teaching history by having schoolchildren compile “single-street histories” of their own neighborhoods, thus showing them how to use documents and to question supposed facts rather than merely memorize dates and events. The result, he has concluded, is that sometimes “children no longer know any history.”

That it is not only children who “no longer know any history” because they do not know any political history is occasionally conceded by other social historians. The American historian I quoted, who confessed that he could not “get to” the founding of the United States, has his confreres abroad. The eminent Annaliste François Furet has commented on the neglect of “one of the most classic areas of historiography,” the French Revolution—classic because it inevitably calls for narrative treatment and also because it establishes “politics as the fountainhead and instrument of freedom.” Yet this subject was “virtually absent,” he found, from both the prewar and postwar sets of the Annales, “as if this locus classicus of national history were precisely the special preserve of the ‘other’ history. Eric Hobsbawm too has pointed to “a possible weakness of the Annales approach, namely its difficulty in coping with what you call the great formative political events in a country’s history: the Risorgimento in Italy, or indeed the French Revolution in France.”

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