Donut holes in history

Today’s meeting with Andrew Hurrell was productive and enjoyable. Aside from preparing for exams, we had an interesting realization. It relates to the donut hole that exists in historical education. You see, there are the periods of history that are so distant that they even get mentioned in high school textbooks. (I remember how my grade eight science text spoke about how “soon man will set foot upon the moon.) Since everyone has been exposed to this time and time again, it forms a common basis for conversation. What gets complicated is when there are two separated tranches of people conversing, such as the members of my M.Phil program and members of the faculty.

This is because there is a whole realm of history that a person mostly knows about as a contemporary experience. Given that most people in my program are about 25, it is plausible to say that this period begins for us with the end of the Cold War. Most of the instructors are probably about twenty years older, so their contemporary awareness begins in about 1970. As a product of this, there is a kind of donut hole in our discussions. The period between those two thresholds of awareness is not extensively covered in many introductory level texts and, where it is, is it covered without much historical distance and corresponding scope for analysis. Think about contemporary textbooks discussing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – they can hardly put them into a historical framework that is likely to stand up well over the coming decades.

This may have something to do with why I can’t recall hearing anything about the New International Economic Order before coming to Oxford, as well as why I know more about the Harding and Coolidge administrations than about the Ford or Carter ones. It will be interesting to see what happens when history from 1970 to present has gone further through the process of becoming parable.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

2 thoughts on “Donut holes in history”

  1. “But this is History. Distance yourselves. Our perspective on the past alters. Looking back, immediately in front of us is dead ground. We don’t see it, and because we don’t see it this means that there is no period so remote as the recent past. And one of the historian’s jobs is to anticipate what our perspective of that period will be… even on the Holocaust.”

    The History Boys (2006)

  2. The sheer passage of time matters, too. It is too soon to tell whether swift histories of the Ukraine war will stand that test, but if books about the second world war are any guide, they are unlikely to. There was a “time lag” of perhaps 20-30 years between the end of the second world war and the appearance of really good histories on it, says Sir Ian Kershaw, an English historian. When Sir Ian studied history at Oxford University in the 1960s, the curriculum simply ended in 1914: “It was felt to be too close to be able to deal with properly.”

    Some of the problems the prompt historian faces are practical. It takes time for good sources to become available. Many recent books on Ukraine read like dry assemblages of press clippings, with little analysis. It takes yet more time for classified documents to become declassified. Intelligence gained from Bletchley Park’s cracking of the Enigma code changed the course of the second world war, but since Ultra was kept ultra-secret until 1974, it is absent from all early histories.

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