History – facts = sociology?

Lamenting how history is taught in today’s schools, one writer argues that history without facts is just sociology:

My son’s teacher confirmed that this is broadly true. The teaching of history in British schools is increasingly influenced by US methods of presenting the past thematically rather than chronologically. Thus pupils might study crime and punishment, or kingship, and dip in and out of different centuries. Consequently, dates lose their value. So 1605, which for me means the Gunpowder Plot, for my son simply means that he is five minutes late for games.

I didn’t argue with his teacher, and in any case there is more than one way to skin a cat, as Torquemada (1420-1498) knew. Besides, a slant on history that was good enough for two of our greatest historians, WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman, ought to be good enough for me. The subtitle of their enduringly delightful 1930 book, 1066 And All That, was A Memorable History of England comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings, and 2 Genuine Dates.

Maybe it wasn’t crusty American academics but Sellar and Yeatman, having a laugh, who really popularised the notion that history can be taught largely without dates. “The first date in English history is 55BC,” they wrote, referring to the arrival of Julius Caesar and his legions on the pebbly shores of Kent. “For the other date, see Chapter 11, William the Conqueror.” They didn’t specify the year in which the King of Spain “sent the Great Spanish Armadillo to ravish the shores of England”.

Whatever, I can see the logic of going down the thematic rather than the chronological route. And I made sympathetic noises when my son’s teacher explained that “it’s helpful for those pupils who struggle to take in lots of facts”. But even if we leave out dates, aren’t facts what history is all about? The rest, as they say, is sociology.

This is not an unusual complaint: the next generations always seem to know less history and perhaps even more troubling is that they don’t seem to care.

A couple of other thoughts:

1. Why can’t you have both dates and thematic approaches? Knowing dates doesn’t necessarily know that a student knows what to do with the information or that they know the broad sweep of historical change.

2. I think the argument in the final sentence is that sociology is devoid of facts. While sociologists may indeed care about certain topics (such as race, class, and gender) that others don’t care as much about, we also care about facts. For example, many sociology undergraduate programs have students take statistics and research methods courses. We don’t want students or sociologists simply interpreting data and information without having their findings be reliable (replicable) and valid (measuring what we say we are). There is a lot of debate within the field about how we can best know about the world and determine what is causing or influencing what. This is not easy work since most social situations are quite complex and there are a lot of variables at play.

3. Why can’t history and sociology coexist? As an overgeneralization, history tends to tell us what happened and sociology helps us think through why these things happened. Why can’t sociology help inform us about history, particularly about how certain historical narratives develop and then become part of our collective memory?

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