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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol 5, No. 6. July 31, 1942

Letter from J. G. Read to Salient Vol 5, No. 6. July 31, 1942

(The Editor, "Salient.")

Dear Madam,

The recent correspondence in regard to the History Syllabus has been very interesting, and reveals quite a paucity of thought on the subject on history as a whole. The first correspondent after three years of University history can only sum up that "history is a series of facts" taught "for very vague reasons," for "facts they gave us in plenty, but not understanding." The second writer states, "In an attempt to provide a history curriculum of some use, should not the whole business be dealt with generally?"

As a non-history student I find it difficult to reconcile these two views, for I have no way of determining whether the correspondents are coming radical historians or just two dissatisfied students forced to take history for their degree.

Now, I am quite aware that men such as Alex Carrel have written disparagingly of history as "the conjectural science," and that Freeman has said, "In history every step in advance has also been a step backwards." Nevertheless, I feel that had all history students of the past really taken their course seriously we would have been spared the rapid growth of the fascists and the present world conflict. I think history attempts to give an account of the origin and development of human institutions and ideas, and from this data endeavours to give to the world general principles of conduct and policy so that we in the present may profit by the mistakes and successes of the past.

It is true that in the early stages of teaching history it was regarded merely as a branch of general literature, and that a pleasing mode of expression was encouraged to the prejudice of historical accuracy. But have we not swung too far in the opposite direction, for to-day the emphasis is placed on the correctness of the facts and the soundness of the understanding of the particular period in review? And this has led to the fallacious idea that "history repeats itself."

Croce has written, "We must dissipate the illusions of the repetitiveness of history and of the rigid persistence of its products, generated by the understanding of classifactory concepts. We must, on the contrary, be fully aware that in history everything lasts only in so far as everything changes." Now, Croce was not advocating a drastic withdrawal of all dates and similar material from our history books, but merely a plea to see things in their right proportion and correct relation to the affairs of other parts of the world. When this is achieved, it is then necessary to eradicate the false appearance of all history as just a [unclear: ontinuous] reiteration. Has not our method of affixing descriptive labels to different historical events destroyed their essential characteristics and rendered them mere abstractions and pegs on which to stake our political theories?

To sum up, not only does history not repeat itself, but its events are not preserved inviolate down the ages. If the two history students had really thought about their subject, I am sure that they would not have rushed into print with just an attack on the number of facts taught and a plea for the treating of all history as a valid part of the sum total of our knowledge of the human race.

I remain,

Yours faithfully.

J. G. Read