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There is nothing inherently wrong with myth. It can be the means by which a polity imagines itself for the best, a source of inspiration and aspiration. Shared myths create shared cultures. Perhaps the English need myth now more than ever. But why do people persist in thinking that the intrinsically divisive and fissiparous discipline of history, whether pursued in the classroom or the wider public sphere, is a means to shore up national identity? Surely the study of England’s literature, from Chaucer and Langland to Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Austen and Dickens, is more appropriate to that task? Patrick Collinson, the great scholar of English Puritanism and a man very comfortable with his national identity, was wary of such claims for the study of history and was fond of quoting the wise words of Lord Acton: ‘I think our studies ought to be all but purposeless. They want to be pursued with chastity, like mathematics.’ History for history’s sake. Now there’s a thought.
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