Monday, 11 February 2013


A reflective essay
And something soon on line

I – Reflecting on history

'Each of us – with the help of parents, grandparents, friends, teachers – goes fishing in the  stream of time. And comes up with what we knew, or strongly suspected, was already there...'
History should offer us a feel for the many-sidedness of past experience and what has led us to where we are today. That goes for the past experience of Conductive Education too as we look back upon it from our present vantage point in the shifting present. What the people of the past experienced and knew of at any given time, however, would have depended upon where they lived, their interests, social class, and prejudices. They would have seen things from their now, their present.


There is a notion that history consists mainly of certain 'key dates' – 1066 and all that. Dates may then seem the rigid skeleton of history, one that historians and others can flesh out. From this standpoint such crucial dates are the Landmarks of History. But if we think of history simply as chronology, the landmarks may all too readily overshadow the landscape.

A more profound consequence may be to shape – or rather pervert – our notions of human experience in the long past. History is portrayed not as a broad stream of many eddies but rather as a neat and narrow road with sharp turns, unambiguous starting points, and clearly marked dead ends. Thus Roman civilisation ended when Alaric and the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 BC. Then 'the Dark Ages began'. A favourite examination question used to ask 'When did the Renaissance begin?' Such date-oriented history is inevitably a story of sudden beginnings and instant endings, in which people who lived 'in advance of their age' could be deemed 'prophets'.

Contemporaneous experience

While such time-clichés may pervert our view of the processes of history, another peculiarity of date-oriented thinking perverts our view of the processes of history, shaping our understanding of the past as a sequence, and teaching us to think of history as consequence. We may be so overwhelmed and dazzled by this sequence-oriented view of the past that we fail even to notice what we have been missing – History as Experience.

One of the obvious features of the experience that fills our everyday lives is that we can never know what will flow out of it. But historians are the scientists of hindsight. Since they know (or think that they knows) how it all turned out, they may be preoccupied with the question 'What chain of events made it turn out that way?' On the other hand, we the people live in the world of the contemporary. We see ourselves dominated by events that happen at one time – in our time. And we are charmed, and enticed, and threatened by the uncertainties of the future.

Historians in their libraries and at their leisure can focus in turn on one kind of event after another – the political, the economic, the intellectual. They have opportunity to sort out origins and consequences. But the citizen is the simultaneous target of all sorts of events. A comprehensive history has to remind us of how numerous and how diverse are the events that make up the everyday experience of living men and women.

Arbitrariness of numbers

A further common effect of that common way of viewing the historical past is to reinforce our habits of thinking in ways that make us feel at home where we already are. We use our chronology to narrow our historical vision. One example is use of the birth of Christ as pivotal point in historical dating. All such ways of looking at chronology inhibit out thinking about the whole human past.

In addition the decimal system and the celebration of centuries and decades, and their multiples, induce an unnatural neatness and rigidity, wrapping up history into parcels ten or a hundred years long.


People sometimes need reminding that much of the contemporaneity of happenings all over the world was itself beyond the consciousness of people living at the time. The events and consciousness that were contemporary by the calendar were not contemporary in experience until and unless people know of them. During nearly all history, communications have been limited, slow and desultory. We must therefore be wary of assuming that because events occurred in the same year they were known to contemporaries at about the same time.

Among the crucial features of our human experiences, therefore, we must count not only the vast range of events and achievements that make up contemporary life, but the accessibility of the events and achievements of one place to people living elsewhere. Contemporaneity – as a quality not of the calendar but of living human experience – is a relative and variable term. Only in the most recent times have we begun to take for granted that dominant events and achievements that occur in a particular year enter the experience of ever larger numbers of people in the very year or even on the very day of their occurrence

To think as though this were otherwise is immediately to think ahistorically. When we today look back upon people and their lives before the late twentieth century, we should never forget that we are seeing their 'contemporaneity' as only God could have seen have seen it at the time.

Sincerest acknowledgement

I am most indebted to the late Daniel J. Boorstin for the theme, the form and indeed much of the wording of the above. He died in 2004, though I very much doubt that he ever heard of Conductive Education (which serves to illustrate one of the central points made here!). What he wrote on history in general, however, applies so well to how people state, and restate, the history of Conductive Education that I felt it worth rewriting and representing. I do hope that I have done his argument justice, and that my honest disclosure clears me of accusation of plagiarism.

The material that I have drawn upon so liberally comes from his Foreword to the third edition of a hefty American reference book The Timetables of History. This American work is a translation and elaboration of a German tome, Werner Stein's Kulturfahrplan, first published in 1946. The US translation is subtitled A horizontal linkage of people and events, which about sums up what it does. Starting at the year dot (actually in the range 5000 to 4001 BC), from the start of the Egyptian calendar and the earliest cities is Mesopotamia it traces a chronology of Western history up until AD 1990. Its claim to fame is that it does so on a matrix that, as well as the more usual political and events, includes a wide variety of cultural, philosophical, creative, scientific and all sorts of personal and social events too. The product of this is a chart over seven hundred pages long, that permits the reader not just to run the eye backwards (and forwards) through the story of our civilisation but sideways too  – hence the 'horizontal linkage of people and events'.

II – Coming soon on line


A couple of weeks ago Ben Foulger invited Gill Maguire and myself to 'curate' an online project of his, one of the new Intelligent Love pages. Since then inter alia I have been giving a hand to Gill on another of Ben's projects, the Workplace map of where conductors work around the world. Now it is time to turn my mind to Ben's proposal for a TimeMap and to consider how one might best proceed.

I found Daniel J Boorstin's thoughts paraphrased above helpful in focusing my attention. Though the span of time involved in the history of Conductive Education and the breadth of relevant events are relatively small, a simplified version of the model utilised by Werner Stein's Kulturfahrplan and its English translation seems to accord closely with the graphic online structure that Ben proposes. Ben's TimeMap will add a further intriguing dimension to the mix, geographical mapping of events.

In preparing this forthcoming TimeMap we hope that its users will find much of what they hope to find there. Inevitably, however, the choice of items will be personal. There can be no such thing as a 'correct' or even 'complete' choice for such a collection. Perhaps much of the stimulus and possible usefulness of such work must come from the unexpectedness and arbitrariness of compilers' interests.

Part I of this posting begins with direct quotation from the opening of Daniel J Boorstin's Foreword, about fishing in the stream of time. Here is the sentence that follows –

One of the purposes of this book is to make it possible to go fishing 
and come up with some surprises.

I hope that this will apply equally to the TimeMap site now in preparation. That said, if you find what you regard as an important omission, then do please write in. I cannot promise to include it but, as in many areas of life, if you do not ask then surely you will not get.


Boorstin, D. J. (1975) Forward to Bernard Grun's The Timetables of History (3rd edition), NY, Simon and Schuster, n.p.

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