I’m a bit worried that anything I say about the US might be tinged with events in New York three years ago! However, looking into the subject of ‘Spatial Humanities’ recently and a NY Times article on Gettysburg, The Salem Witch Hunts and the modelling of events, temporally and spatially, does remind me of the tours I did in American schools. It worried me that in many schools there History is not taught on its own, but as a ‘Social Science’.
It rather begs the question of what History is ‘for’. I realise that in the UK there has always been a cultural split between the ‘geeky’ scientists and the ‘poetic’ Historians. I actually love science as much as history, and on one level Spatial Humanities is attempting to unite all disciplines, and especially the ‘two languages’ we carry in the world, that I’ve talked about elsewhere. The problem for me is that somehow history must be an art, not a science at all, so be about listening to the mind and sensibilities of historians talking about the past, for no other purpose than deepening the human dialogue and creating cultural depth.
So to teach History instead as Social Science presupposes some kind of ‘Telos’, some unfolding purpose, just as the Marxist Historians argued for, or much like some of the voices that come out of Right Wing America, arguing that the US is the freest and greatest Nation ever, or that we must somehow all stop dead at the 11 O’clock school bell and swear allegiance to the flag. To us that is a kind of cultural brainwashing, and you might speak of the facts that came up last night on a repeat of the Quiz show QI, saying that America locks up one in a hundred of its citizens, on the ‘3 Strikes and You’re Out’ model, more than any Nation on eath, ever. The figures for young blacks in prison now are even more frightening. In one sense though, History, and the study of cultures, should have no obvious purpose at all, but like literature, be a chance to explore greater truths across time, and imaginatively examine, for good and bad, the entire human condition.
Since I clearly can’t resist a bit of New Yorker bashing, the depth of sensibility and awareness I met from my own partner, and then at my own American publisher too, was astoundingly limited. Almost instantly, and from my own editor of ten years, it became about ‘sides’, ‘You’ and ‘Us’, like re-fighting the Alamo when I was supposed to be in partnership with a firm, to create. A very onesided partnership because of all the money they generate elsewhere, and when another very personal partnership had been so harmed along side it. Some people call it ‘Ego Consciousness’, brilliant at arguing for individual ‘rights’, and snap decisions, or being shocked by something out of the mould, but terrible at seeing a bigger and truly human picture, warts and all. Terrible when you find that at the heart of a prominent publisher.
There are many exciting things about Spatial Humanities, which educationally is about the vivid engagement of the student in a world that is increasingly defined by technology, and this place you are looking at, the Cyberverse. Yet there is also the danger of turning all human history into some glorified Computer Game, and we all know the dangers and addictions of that. Actually, anything that takes us further away from the human, so contained in great history and great literature, is fraught with dangers. Keep to the human. DCD