Such national histories have been the backbone of the entire historical profession since the 19th century, when many state historical institutions were set up. Although today the field of history has broadened to include many topics unimaginable to those earlier historians, all countries make their own past the centrepiece of their education and their historical research, sometimes to the virtual exclusion of all else. In addition, most countries make history a compulsory subject in school, recognizing how vital a component it is in shaping national identity and inmoulding society’s energies.
But history is not just the creation of academies and governments: it is ubiquitous. It is in the air we breathe, in the cities we inhabit and in the landscapes we roam. People learn their own history at home, in stories told by family members and by the media, in folk tales and on television, from public statues and war memorials, and from prominent architecture, museums and galleries. The history imbibed from such sources is rarely questioned, and sometimes barely even recognized. This can make it very different from the history practised in Western colleges, where the liberal instinct is to be sceptical of received wisdom, to question the authority of the source, to frame knowledge in a broad context and to seek a novel interpretation. As a result, in many countries – perhaps especially those with the most firmly established traditions of academic life – there is a deep disjunction between the history of the academy and that of the people.
The ‘academic’ history of the world has been written many times, especially in the last fifty years when the emergence of a world economy and ideological conflicts have made a search for a unified world history a realistic endeavour. Sometimes it has been done by hugely energetic and polymathic individuals with a line to argue, such as, for example, the ‘triumph of theWest’ of which John Roberts spoke in the 1980s, the ‘clash of civilizations’ of Sam Huntington from the 1990s, or the environmental history of John McNeill in the 2000s. Sometimes it has been the product of teams of scholars or educators working to an agenda in an attempt, so far as is possible, to remove subjectivity, perhaps by ensuring that each part of the world is given equal weight. Either way,every completed account of the history of the world is a work of synthesis that contextualizes the more detailed research of others, and as such is a reflection of the wider preoccupations of the years in which it was produced.
Extract from Histories of Nations: How Their Identities Were Forged by Peter Furtado