US founding father John Adams was right when he said “facts are stubborn things”. Individuals in history are stubborn things too.
Academic historians at modern-day universities might believe and inculcate in their students the idea that the past is the product only of the inexorable forces of class, race and gender. However, the book-reading and film-going public know better.
Which is why the shelves of airport bookshops are crammed with historical biographies. And that’s why Darkest Hour, a film about how Winston Churchill became British prime minister in 1940, is an international success. Its gross receipts of $100 million are less than the $1 billion earned by the The Last Jedi, but Darkest Hour is a dialogue-heavy political drama with no special effects (unless you count make-up) and its only action sequences involve Churchill in his bathtub.
Individuals make history, just as it is individuals who found great companies, who make scientific breakthroughs, and who write great symphonies. The “force of history” is a phrase that appears in postmodern humanities textbooks, but it is just as meaningless as a similar term, “the right side of history”.
The results of the annual Edelman Trust Barometer survey were published in this newspaper on Tuesday. Respondents who said they trusted chief executives increased from 26 per cent in 2016 to 39 per cent last year. Part of the reason for this is assumed to be the growing number of bosses making public pronouncements on social issues. Regardless of whether you happen to agree or disagree with the stance that chief executives take on particular questions at least they are choosing to exercise some leadership. Successful business leaders don’t just wait for the forces of global capitalism to crash into them.
A central message of Darkest Hour is that individuals make history by the choices they make. In April 1940 Neville Chamberlain could have chosen for Britain to reach a peace with Hitler and cede Europe to Nazism. In May 1940 Winston Churchill chose to fight. As dire as Britain’s position was after the fall of France, Churchill succeeded in convincing the British people that they weren’t helpless and that their defeat was not inevitable.
The notion that individuals have power over history, and indeed have power over their own lives, is an optimistic and positive one. Yet it’s a notion diametrically opposed to how history is taught in Australian universities. More broadly, the claim that the way we live is the result of the choices we make cuts across the prevailing narrative of nation states and their political systems as merely bobbing corks on the tide of the inevitability of globalisation, liberalisation, and homogenisation.
Last year the Institute of Public Affairs reviewed all of the 746 undergraduate history subjects taught at the 35 Australian universities offering history programs. Forty-two subjects covered the First World War; 48 covered Nazism, Fascism, and Communism in the 20th century; 51 covered the Second World War; and 39 subjects dealt with the Cold War.
The name “Winston Churchill” didn’t appear once in the content of any of these subjects. Which is perplexing given his responsibility for the Dardanelles campaign in 1915, his role as the world’s foremost opponent of the totalitarian ideologies in the inter-war period, his prime ministership from 1940 to 1945, and then in 1946 his “Iron Curtain” speech usually taken to mark the beginning of the Cold War. In fact Churchill doesn’t appear in any of the descriptions of the 746 history subjects taught last year at Australian universities.
In tertiary institutions individuals have been replaced by ideologies. The most common themes in those 746 subjects are, in order, Indigenous issues, race, gender, the environment and identity.
The ideology of identity politics and the categorisation of people into pigeon holes according to personal characteristics that they had little or no role in choosing for themselves is that there’s no room for choices.
“Race” and “identity” might help comprehend the origins of totalitarianism, but they can’t explain how Churchill became prime minister, and they certainly can’t explain how fascism came to be defeated.
It’s sad that someone wanting to know how the civilised world was saved in 1940 by the choices that Winston Churchill made would learn more from going to the movies than from enrolling in history at an Australian university.