The Narrow History Project

In the early 1990s I had the great joy of teaching history in Zimbabwe.

At that time the Zimbabwe dollar was still worth 25 Australian cents, there was optimism about ZANU PF and the leadership of Robert Mugabe, and the land was breathtakingly beautiful.

In the store room of my school were piles of decrepit history books, the remnants of an earlier period. They were written during the time when the nation was called Rhodesia, and a minority white population had announced a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Within these books the Shona and Ndebele people were largely referred to as ‘labour’ and the history was constructed to tell the story of the success of the nation under white economic leadership. White rule equated to ‘stable government’, and thus to ‘the best outcome for all’.

On the desks in my classroom were the official ZANU PF histories of Zimbabwe. Within the pages of these texts were details of the rise of local African populations such as the Rozvi. They told the story of the struggle of the Shona and Ndebele peoples against ‘oppressive colonial rule’ and the final chapter of the second book was totally dedicated to ‘Mugabe the hero’, the ‘saviour’ of Zimbabwe.

It would be clear to any outsider that both sets of texts were terribly flawed. We thus had interesting classes comparing the descriptions of events and movements in both texts. In these comparisons we uncovered the many challenges that exist in the teaching of history.

Something within me loves The Big History Project. It is an attempt to put the whole story together, to tell the narrative of the history of our planet. Context is a very important thing for the historian. We can better understand events by developing a grasp of the cultures and decisions that preceded them.

But The Big History Project is like the Rhodesian and ZANU PF texts in my history classroom.

It is history told from one perspective.

I can hear the immediate rebuttal. No, that’s not true. The project purposefully allows for a variety of voices.

And that is accurate. There are many voices allowed.

But the overarching categories are established for the student. The basic metaphor for history, for example, is development. It is thus a socially progressive history and students are not alerted up front that not all historians see history this way. Religious and cultural traditions are reduced in importance whilst empiricism is promoted as a methodology. Philosophical positions such as Idealism, Monism and Dualism barely rate a mention. Physicalism is King.

This might not matter to the average Australian, but it should.

We swallow given categories in history all too easily. The current debate that the European Dark Ages were not really so dark, and that the Enlightenment was a not really so illuminating, is an interesting example of why categories matter. Terms carry assumptions. Accepted truths. Generations in Africa – and Australia -were taught that indigenous people were primitive. It is essential that students are taught to not simply accept categories.

The Big History Project is backed by the finances of Bill Gates. He has partnered with David Christian to create a brave new world of historiography for our classrooms. Now the Board of Studies in NSW is establishing a new subject based on this investment. Suddenly we wonder if the investor is writing the way we think.

Financial investment is quite enamouring. Well created websites are beautiful. They make the job of the educator easy.

Be trained by us. Just deliver the course this way.

I am all in favour of assisting students to think about the big picture. I am not in favour of Mr Gates or his academic favourites setting our curriculum.

‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ as conceit

In schools we are trying to help young people to to develop the skills and desire to serve their communities. We hope they will avoid simple caricatures, and seek to develop a deep understanding of people’s histories, beliefs and motivations. We hope they will enjoy learning and take on the challenge of improving things in a sustained fashion. We hope they will be creative, and not conceited.

Ugly.

Matthew Vaughn’s latest film Kingsman: The Secret Service carries within it all that is ugly about the edges of Epicurean thought.

As I exited the cinema I had the overwhelming impression that the response I was supposed to have was that the director is really brave and clever. Violence used as a comic art form. Violence for the connoisseur. A redemptive Pygmalion of violence.

And the purpose of the film? Repeat after me: All admire Matthew Vaughn.

Perhaps in a world where we can now view real Isis violence online, or can conceive, oh too easily, that it might come from someone else’s ideology to our city, Vaughn might think that we need some violent catharsis in in our cinemas. Perhaps to help us cope. To relieve the stress.

Yet this film is a Hamlet of violence. There are so many people that the viewer is supposed to hate that the film just ends up equivocating about the value of being human altogether. Consider the various groups upon which one is permitted to lump one’s scorn:

  • Students of prominent British universities
  • Working class men
  • Middle American church goers
  • Politicians
  • Scandinavian social progressives

And, in the end, when the prodigal son saves the world by mass murder, his reward is (spoiler alert) anal sex with a princess. Well done Matthew! As the Principal of a school dedicated to building agency and equality: ‘thanks’ for depicting sexual power over young women’s bodies as the prize. Oh, and yes, she is blonde after all.

Yes there is a code of treating each other with dignity among the kingsmen. They are knights of the Round Table. In the first half of the film this notion shows lots of promise. But in my cinema the audience was silent during the carnage in the church. I felt like Vaughn wanted me to be entertained by Rwanda in the 1990s, like he was saying maybe the Hutu broadcasters of hatred had a point.

Contrast the actual approach of forgiveness and reconciliation in Rwanda with the visceral ugliness of Kingsman.

I believe Kingsman is on the cultic edge of Epicureanism. In the West now a significant proportion of our television shows are about us living the good life: eating for flavour and pleasure, building for status and style, the pursuit of our happiness now.

We want to depict our little dramas over food choices and house building as worthy of large emotive responses. Let’s all cry when someone is voted out. These things are within our control. Our televisions show little of the world’s actual issues. Who has heard of the Assyrian Genocide? Who has heard of the Justice Mission? Poverty and exploitation are for occasional consideration on SBS.

Even with China’s growth, we know that only a relatively small portion of the world shares the possibility of this ‘good’ life. Thus we have huge issues world wide with immigration, violence and political instability. Vaughn’s answer: make a new art form that enables us to cope with the violence. Make the violence a form of entertainment.

And have the people the Director doesn’t like getting it in the neck. Don’t try to understand the huge variety of thought and contribution of religious people: just have them smash each other. Don’t appreciate the research coming out of Cambridge and Oxford – just vote them out of The House.

Yes, I know, I am reading it too literally. It is a farce. It makes fun of itself. The joke is on the person who watches it too seriously. The joke is on me.

That’s OK. Then I say I would love to see us creating art that firstly seeks to understand the bigger issues we face, and secondly, seeks to assist us to serve each other to address them.

Oh yes, and I recognise escapism has a place. But  Kingsman is a perverse escapism.

And finally, if there are ‘A’ List actors, doesn’t that mean that a chief purpose of the film is so that we can admire them? Doesn’t the choice to have them mean that the film is ‘OK’? Its values are mainstream. They are beyond the hatred ascribed to other groups. Where is the film where the ‘A’ list actors all slaughter each other for being greedy?

I confess to being angry about this film. Perhaps my response is what Vaughn wants. Better to get a response than to get boredom.

Well I won’t be rushing back to one of his films.

I have to conclude that Kingsman is really a form of filmic conceit. It creates us as a chattering class. Its purpose is to make us smug that we can be so clever as to create such art.

In that way it is the opposite of a good education. It creates caricatures, it has little to no nuance. It is its own admirer.