A Cambridge paradox

15th March 1996 at 00:00

POLITICAL CHANGE THROUGH TIME. Modules 1 and 2. By Robert Ellis POLITICAL CHANGE THROUGH TIME. Modules 3 and 4. By Robert Ellis Stanley Thornes Pounds 13 each Age range 16 - 18

Sean Lang finds a divided approach in a now-completed A-level course

These three volumes complete the published resources for the Cambridge A-level History Project. This pioneering exam course consists of two main parts: a study in development looking at political change in Britain over time, and a depth study on the English revolution, discussing, in- deed, whether that is its most appropriate description.

Schools following the course hardly need to be persuaded to buy the books, since they constitute the prescribed materials for study, but they are worth careful consideration by teachers on other courses too.

The two volumes on the English Revolution cover the most generally familiar ground, and they comprise a remarkably thorough compendium of source material on the period, which will save grateful teachers a lot of work. This second volume concentrates on the radical groups of the period: the Levellers, the Ranters, Muggletonians and Quakers first brought to general notice by Christopher Hill.

These colourful characters are guaranteed to enliven A-level classes, what with a woman stripping off during the sermon, crying: "Welcome the Resurrection!", and jolly pamphlets doing the rounds with titles such as "A Fiery, Flying Roll" and its sequel, "A Second Fiery, Flying Roll".

The source material comes first, then its context is considered and finally we look at the historical debate it stirs up. It works well, so that, apart from wondering vaguely whether A-level students will cope with the sheer amount of material, it's a while before you are reminded of how narrow an approach this is to an immensely rich period. It might have been better, for example, to have given a bit more space to the current debate about the conflict's British context (and these books are couched in heavily English terms), and a bit less to a rather superficial survey of other revolutions put in for purposes of comparison.

But if it's breadth you want, cast a look at the Study in Development volumes. The first of these begins with a long and curiously old-fashioned narrative account of the political history of England in the traditional Whig style, before launching into well researched case studies of the Norman Conquest, the Tudor "Revolution in Government" debate, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the political and social impact of the First World War.

The sources come thick and fast - nearly a hundred in one go on each study. The second volume takes more of a "history from below" approach, looking at political protest through the ages, with detailed consideration of the Peasants' Revolt and of Chartism; then it's off for a bird's eye view of the sweep of Russian history before finishing with Francis Fukuyama's storm in a teacup about the End of History. Phew.

The authors' research and erudition are consistently impressive; nevertheless these books raise important, even disturbing, questions. The selection of topics, and order in which they appear, is often unusual, even quixotic. How can even the ablest student be expected to cover such a wide time span without adopting a rigidly determinist approach to the subject? Despite the authors' reasonable tones, the selection of material is strictly controlled, and sometimes appears to lead students towards the authors' own conclusions. There is much talk of the Annales school and its division of historians into parachutists and truffle hunters, but at least truffle hunters are open about what they are looking for.

At times, I even found myself wondering whether these books are about history at all. There is a section on the Black Death, for example, which looks at it not in order to find out what happened, but to establish a sort of abstract significance for it: temporal, spatial, short-term, long-term, and so on, as if it were a scientific specimen. At other points the approach comes perilously close to political posturing rather than historical enquiry.

It's a paradox. The books are rich in material, particularly the depth study books on the 17th century, but highly determinist in outlook; they display a wide knowledge of history, but a very odd view of how the subject works. If you are following the Cambridge course, you have presumably tackled this paradox in class; if you are not, take the books, but handle with care.

Sean Lang is head of history at Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge

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