There has been a divide among historians, including history teachers, between those who believe in teaching ‘History from Above’ and those who believe in ‘History from Below’.

When I was at school, almost everyone accepted that teaching history was mainly about kings, queens, generals and prime ministers.  The rest of the population got a mention only when they revolted.  Some people reacted against that, by creating the ‘History from Below’ movement, calling the earlier approach ‘History from Above’.  The new movement concentrated on economic and social history.  In other words, it looked at how most people lived.

You might think that a sensible approach was one that combined the two.  However, for a long time things were quite polarised.  Although I applaud the inclusion of the masses, instead of studying only the rulers, I was worried when I heard that in some schools teaching history had become so ‘bottom-up’ that there was hardly any mention of the decision-makers or of major national and international events.  I thought the pendulum had swung too far.

What about now?  I get the impression that a lot of people are combining the two approaches to teaching history.  At least, the the two extremes are less prevalent than they were.  It may depend on the views of particular teachers.  Fortunately, teachers are not the only ones who teach.

Soap Box

One group of people who seemed to keep a reasonable balance throughout all the changes in the academic world was historical novelists.  A good novel of any kind has always needed a plot and a setting.  Of course, some novels have perfectly good plots without getting involved in politics or other big stories.  They could be seen as belonging to the ‘From Below’ school.  Many, however, involve their characters with the major events of the time, arguably giving the best of both worlds.

What about me?  In Highwaypersons, the main characters are ordinary people but the Jacobite Rebellion provides the background.  There is some discussion of the issues involved.  I find that the big story gives structure within which the small story can take place and be given a greater significance.

Am I exaggerating?  If you think I am being a little pretentious on behalf of historical novelists, I would point out that when almost all schools were teaching History from Above, the one way to get a feel of life in past ages was to read historical novels.  Think of Dickens, Austen, the Brontes,  C S Forester or Arthur Conan Doyle.  All right, some of their works were not historical when they were written but they were by the middle of the Twentieth Century.

I think we should keep up the tradition.