We’re getting to the end of another college semester here (hello, pile of marking) and as I often end up doing around now (only in part because I’m procrastinating) I have been thinking a bit about why I teach history. To a degree this is probably something everyone does – why do I do this?? – but it strikes me especially because I teach at least one history course every year that all the students in our program are required to take, and it won’t be the only time in their education where someone will make them take history, even if they’re not after a degree in it.
Add to that that the interest level in history among the students – interest level going beyond ‘10 unbelievable facts about the ancient Greeks! – is middling, and I periodically question why we do this. Perhaps obviously, I think everyone should study history because history is the best and everyone should love it. I can go on about that at length but again I suspect most people can be equally passionate about their chosen fields, and they’re not all compulsory.
So why is history?
People wore yellow Stars of David that said ‘No COVID certificate’ to a protest in the UK last week. I trust I can skip the step of explaining why this is unbelievably offensive, cruel, and dangerous, to suggest a parallel between an industrialized genocide and being asked to get vaccinated against a disease. But perhaps I shouldn’t, because people wore yellow Stars of David to a protest, and people defended them.
I wonder whether part of the reason they felt emboldened to do so is the increasing gap of time between the Holocaust and the present day, and the decreasing number of people for whom it is living memory. We should also factor in that far-right ideologies (with which me must surely associate anything that denigrates or minimizes the Holocaust) and conspiracy theories (which we must categorize anything attaching sinister motives to public vaccination as) have a louder voice today than in even relatively recent years past.
But I think on some level the answer is that these people simply weren’t taught history very well, and simply don’t understand what they are talking about, or the comparison they were making. Perhaps it explains that louder voice for the hateful and the dangerously foolish, as well.
There was a fuss, recently, about the things being ‘Anglo-Saxon’. It sounds a neutral enough term, and I will say that I think many people who use it do so intending nothing more than a harmless shorthand for a time in English or British history that is ‘after the Romans, but before the Normans’ while also including ‘not the Vikings’. In my PhD studies, I read a great deal of what was termed ‘Anglo-Saxon’ studies and read about ‘Anglo-Saxon Britain’ and a great many other ‘Anglo-Saxon’ things. At the time I gave it no more thought than other periodization shorthands like ‘Angevin’, ‘post-Plague’, or ‘Tudor’.
But there are problems. One is that it is a kind of useless term. Except for a literal handful of examples, we find neither people referring to themselves as Anglo-Saxon nor monarchs who claim to rule such people. Alfred of Wessex (despite the whole ‘West Saxons’ thing) envisioned the title ‘King of the English’ (Rex Anglorum) which his son would later claim and this is generally what we find throughout the period. Various titles, but not ‘Anglo-Saxon’.
So it’s a created anachronism that basically no people ever used to describe themselves or their own culture, applied later by historians who (it must be said) like a handy label. It creates the illusion of unity and homogeneity when it probably didn’t exist and one that would probably not have been recognized by people at the time.
That’s problematic, but we might stick with the handy label, except that at least some of the time (and perhaps a lot of the time) it gets used, it has a wholly different meaning, often unspoken: ‘the right sort of white people’. It’s used by racists and xenophobes to weave their fiction of a ‘pure’ ‘white race’ into which all the right sort of people can be said to belong, and bring along with it the idea that the values of this made-up common culture are under threat and need defending.
I’m not the right person to fully engage with this foundational aspect of white racism and why it is central to many of the scary ideas that we see people standing up to be counted with today. But it is, and that is why many historians get upset about the use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’. Historians may arguably have created the problem with a handy label, but it’s also an understanding of history that allows us to attack the scary ideas.
It’s somewhat bemusing to me to see the grab bag of historical stuff that bigots grab onto to drape themselves in – you will see ostensibly ‘Viking’ runes and symbols along with the arms of Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire. I trust we don’t approve of Charlemagne’s policy of conversion of pagans by force, but I also trust it’s clear that any attempt to suggest that these two symbols meaningfully belong together is based on absolute nonsense.
At some point, these people have simply never learned history.
This is getting long and I don’t want to go on at too much great length, but I will also say this – if they did know about the history of ancient Rome, or Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire, or medieval England, if they knew what these places were really like, not as they are imagined in the fever dreams of racists, they would know that all of these cultures were multi-ethnic and what today we would call multi-racial. People who looked different, spoke different languages, ate different food and lived their lives differently were always there. Historians never fail to find them, when we are looking.
Again, the argument that there was ever a time when white people did not live in a racially mixed society? It only survives because people don’t know their history.
I don’t pretend that the couple of courses I teach to 17 year olds who are mostly thinking of other things is going to solve that problem. Except maybe it will, in one or two cases, perhaps. And that is enough, and at least part of why I teach history.
Thanks for reading.