Is it really all about the Great Men?

Question of the Month: Does it truly come down to great men/women when getting the public – or an undergraduate class – interested in history?
Big question that keeps coming up for me in the context of modern Canadian history and how to teach it.
This is question history students start to tackle in third or fourth year – when they are introduced to historiography and asked to think critically about the theory and method of writing history. Some advocate for the “Great Man” approach, others abhor it. Yet, it can be useful and instructive in a pedagogical sense, though in historical writing it is a difficult style to execute without it becoming a celebratory hagiography or damning indiction. One of the few who do great man history well – as in balanced, well researched, well written – is John English. He’s tackled Lester Pearson and Pierre Elliott Trudeau – at the request of the late prime minister’s family – winning literary accolades for his work in popular and academic circles. His attention to politicians points to one of – possibly the only – redeeming quality of the great man approach; it gives a personality to situations, institutions, intellectual arguments, economics, and the like that can capture people’s attention and make them care about the past in a way a steady stream of dates cannot. Then again, when the individuals in question are Great Men, there is always the risk their elite status will make it difficult to empathize with their situations and decisions. That is not such a good thing.

Take the debate over the place of Quebec in confederation. It is a highly ideological topic which incorporates ideas of autonomy, differing ideas of nationalism, the circumstances under which separation could occur, all set against the back-drop of major social and economic changes in Canada broadly as well as Quebec specifically. The conflicting ideologies can be boring and confusing. Luckily there were two highly charismatic figures articulating the arguments – René Lévesque and Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Both are interesting individuals and they personify the ideas that drove the separatism debate until the mid-1980s. When they were replaced by Brian Mulroney and Robert Bourassa, then Jean Chrétien and Jacque Parizeau/Lucien Bouchard, the issues fizzled and the ideological debates dies out. It is difficult to think of instances of intense, sustained debates like those of the Trudeau/Lévesque era in the period after 1993 – the 1995 referendum being a blip at most. It is here that the great man approach falters because what is one to do when the next leader, the next ‘great man’ who could potentially be used to personify the abstract changes and issues of an era is, well, less than charismatic, or duller than a doornail? Can you imagine trying to teach modern Quebec with someone with a personality Stephen Harper in the position of premier or prime minister? It would be near impossible.

The reason I think about the role of the individual personality in teaching history is because the idea of “Great Men/Women” has never sat well with me. The resemblance to hagiography and tendency towards celebrations of lives without attention to the less savoury details feels dated, out of touch with contemporary society. It gives the elite individual in a position of power privilege over the ordinary Joe/Jane without the access to arenas of power. Their stories and lives and contribution to the past is just as important as that of the major political leader, but their stories are not often told and too often downplayed. Yet, the great man approach sells popular history books, it is the basis for most historical movies and works of fiction, and public history institutions feature interesting and important individual prominently. So there must be something about this approach which gets the attention of the general public and makes them interested in the past. The ivory tower however is often leery of the this type of story telling, preferring more specific issues and attempting to get 18 and 19 year olds to understand and appreciate critical theory before getting them interested in history.
This is symptomatic of the ivory tower disconnect. Inside it is all about theory and methodology and increasingly obscure tangents of the past. Outside it all comes down to telling a good, engaging story. The divide seems to be getting wider and the implications are greatest for academia – it is like a moat filled with alligators slowly eroding the base of the tower but no one inside is willing to repair the damage or build a bridge back to the mainland. Story telling is central to history. The stories we tell don’t need to be biographies, but the individual does play an important role in getting people to engage with broader ideas and themes. If the great men and women sell books outside the academic sphere, than why are academics so leery of adapting them to make their stories accessible? I do not think that the research being done in academia is too intellectual or obscure for the general public to be interested in. It is not. There are great stories being dug out of archives around the world that are seen by such a small portion of the population it is saddening. I am not advocating for a return to the biographical histories that marked the discipline for so many centuries – that would be regressing rather than pushing the field forward into new territory. But maybe if more academics paused to think not about the peer-reviewers and critics when writing and instead considered a more populous audience the moat between the ivory tower and everyone else would be easier to bridge. Given what is purchased from Chapters, Amazon and the like, this probably means reconsidering the place of biography and ‘great men/women.’

However, the publish-or-parish world of contemporary academia is not a particularly hospitable place to be experimenting with reaching that popular audience. Especially as a new scholar. This does not mean there are not people working on building the foundations of the bridge before the ivory tower becomes irrelevant, but often the pressures of publishing for your peers forces those endeavours to the back-ground. Active History is one of the institutions attempting to do this and they are producing interesting work, but there is much more to be done.

Now for the musical portion!
First heard this song as the 2009/2010 academic year was wrapping up and the opening couple verses immediately struck a cord. This is for all of the dreamers, and there are a good number of those populating the ivory towers of the world.

(Powderfinger, “All of the Dreamers,” The Golden Rule, 2009.)

About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
This entry was posted in Canada, Opinion, Public History and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Is it really all about the Great Men?

  1. Sean says:

    Hi Lauren,

    I’ll be precise and to the point: Hooking the undergraduate history student is ALL about the great woman or man–the one in front of the class. Teaching history, like all subjects, is about putting on a good show, putting everything one has on the table (so to speak). Your ambivalence concerning the ideological baggage and career-driven madness that frames hagiography/indiction is well founded; but I really believe–after teaching history at several levels including (finally) the academy–that in the end the only great person that sells books and tells good stories is the person everyone (OK at least most) is dropping a few hundred dollars to listen to. In this context, a little name dropping becomes a good ‘hook’ in the process.

    It may not pay so good, and you don’t get paid for the prep, but after a good class with a little jolly banter thrown in, I feel like a Great Man too. At least for a little while.

    Thanks for the post Lauren!


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