What do ‘Chinese’ Gordon, Bill Clinton and yours truly have in common? I’ll try to avoid any unduly intrusive attempts to answer by telling you at once. Colour-blindness.
It’s a condition that makes all sorts of things quite difficult in a history classroom. Maps are usually unreadable. Flags are virtually impossible. Diagrams often have to be abandoned in despair. So do many other things printed on coloured backgrounds. My pupils try to be helpful. Except when they don’t. What usually happens is that they end up telling me that something I can’t see looks much like something else I can’t see. Bless them.
I only mention all this because it struck me the other day that there’s a sort of analogy here with how we view the past. It must be so natural for people with normal colour vision to see the world the way they do that any alternative is literally inconceivable. They can’t imagine a world in which blood and peas look pretty much the same, or in which you could mistake blue for yellow, a thing I do all the time [I’m glad I don’t have to hoist the Ukrainian flag, I can tell you]. But the past is even stranger than my version of the present.
This isn’t, of course, the message that we tend to give our pupils. Deliberately or not, the underlying message of most school history is that people are pretty much the same the world over, and always have been. Where they were clearly different – their attitude to religion, for example – our tendency is to reduce its significance. [Recent writing about Aztec sacrifice overwhelmingly follows this pattern].
There’s an unconscious search for rational – that is, post-Enlightenment – motives when we examine historical decision-making. A world in which people didn’t have any of these ‘rational’ motives, or at least none at all that we would consider rational, is almost beyond conception. But I think that’s how it was.
I suspect our pupils are much more willing to accept the essential strangeness of the past. When asked, a significant number will tend to ascribe this ‘otherness’ to a lack of mental acuity. It’s quite common for pupils to denigrate the Normans because they didn’t have machine-guns at Hastings; or to think that people without modern plumbing were just ‘stupid’. But at least they accept that the past was different. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps it’s because a child’s world is not yet bounded by the rational. The child senses what adults have largely forgotten or repressed: that things could be other than they are.
This is the moment, of course, to quote L P Hartley about the past being a foreign country, where they do things differently. But I think Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal captures it even better:
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.