Philip Cummins was a member of the team that wrote the NSW History Extension syllabus and taught the course from its inception. In this slim volume he presents a response to the study of history at this level that is personal, occasionally idiosyncratic, often thought-provoking and potentially very useful to Extension students and teachers at a number of levels.
Anyone who has also taught History Extension for a number of years is likely to find a good deal that is familiar. There is an excellent survey, for example, dealing with a range of historical schools such as the Whigs, Marxists, Annales etc. There are a number of summaries and lists, including a final section on what it means to 'think historically', that students will find useful as discussion guides. They will also find it helpful that the jargon of historiography is used in a context that should assist comprehension.
As Extension students must inevitably do in their own study of history, Cummins highlights the ambiguities and paradoxes of history. History is both "an honest attempt to recapture the past" and "the servant of an idea". It can be defined "as both the record of the past and the past itself - process and subject". And it is both a science-like discipline and a literary art form. Encouragingly, Cummins leans strongly towards the latter, criticising the 'dry, reserved prosaic style which is too often mistaken for sound process'. He suggests that even though we strive "to ensure that the goal of verisimilitude remains paramount", we must also accept that "we cannot avoid the imperative that historical imagination imposes on us".
While this relatively short reflection helpfully condenses a good deal of what may be discussed in class, it also presents a personal approach and what may be fresh insights for many teachers and students. For example I found the chapter on Structure, with its suggestions that "History is a gift of order" and good history "is a product of design", interesting.
Designed to "guide you through the relevant issues facing those who write about history", this book manages to distil a good deal of information and thought about the discipline. Generally accessible to both students and teachers, it could serve as both a handy overview and a great stimulus to further discussion.
Paul Kiem, HTANSW, 2010