History wars

Wednesday 23 November, 18.00 - 19.30 , Large Lecture Room, Nuffield College, University of Oxford, 1 New Rd, Oxford, OX1 1NF UK satellite events


‘The one duty we owe to history’, wrote Oscar Wilde, ‘is to rewrite it’. The past decade has seen the emergence of numerous movements around the world that seek to rewrite - or at the very least question - our conventional understanding of the past. This has led to intense debates about how to approach history.

In South Africa and beyond, including a lively campaign at Oxford University, the Rhodes Must Fall movement has triggered a re-examination of the legacy of Cecil Rhodes and all he has come to represent. Similarly, Black Lives Matter activists claim that by drawing attention to the conditions of people of colour around the world, their campaign has inspired passionate discussions about the legacies of colonialism and racial discrimination. It is argued that countless other activists have mobilised - in the university campuses and public spaces of communities as diverse as Boston, Buenos Aires and Cape Town - a progressive contestation of traditional narratives about the past and its relationship to the present.

Critics of high-profile campaigns are more sceptical about how valuable such political approaches are to understanding the past. Professor Margaret MacMillan has suggested that historians need to protect their craft against the vagaries of politics. Others ask, when students argue that the presence of such offensive statues and artefacts causes ‘invisible violence’ to today’s black students, whether they are flattening out the differences and distance between historical periods. If we discuss racism then and now interchangeably, are campaigners really interested in getting to grips with the real experience of people in the nineteenth-century or are they more concerned with treating history as a blank slate on which contemporary students can rewrite their own biographies as victims in the here and now? How helpful or valid is it to use history as a way of drawing ‘lessons’ for today?

Indeed, at the heart of these emerging controversies lies a fundamental clash of contrasting approaches to history, its content and its role in today’s society: Can history be neutral, objective, ever free from political bias? Who gets to decide what version of history - and which stories, events and people are included in school and university curricula? Should history play a central role in political debate, activist struggle and policy-making? Has moralising displaced the quest for intellectual clarity about history and the forces that shape it? Are we better off confining our debates about history to the academic world, where nuance and accuracy is favoured over slogans and soundbites? Are we entitled to (and indeed ought we) judge historical figures and events? If so, by what standard should we judge them? 

This event is free but please register via Eventbrite.

Produced by Giles Strachan with the following Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Trust scholars:

María Rebeca Barrón, Thai Dang, Claire Keene, Manuel Meléndez Sánchez, Abhishek Raman Parajuli, Ilan Price, Onthatile Serehete, Leonor Selva.