Donut holes in history

2007-05-31

in Daily updates, Oxford, Politics

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.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

. October 31, 2008 at 10:14 am

“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)

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