This paper is aiming to provide food for thought rather than a heated debate, and contains more questions than answers.
My entire adult life has all been spent working in history, however I am not an academic historian. I have a love of history and carry out research for other people who love history.
But why do I and they love history so much?
Why does so much of the population love history? Why are there so many programmes based on history on the television ranging from the serious documentaries to Downton Abbey?
Before trying to enlarge on these questions, I should include a couple of definitions:
By ‘study’ I mean anything from the most serious academic whose life involves researching and analysing historical subjects, to the average person who has enjoyed something historical on television, or who has read a good historical novel, or who visits a National Trust house and who can probably more truthfully be said to find history interesting, rather than to be a serious student of the subject.
By ‘history’ I do not just mean the academic subject, but anything that has happened in the past, so I am including the broadest sense of political, international, personal, social, family, local, business, and scientific, history.
The question is thus broadened out into:
Why do we enjoy history?
Why study history?
Is it important that we have some knowledge and understanding of history?
Does history matter at a national level, or at a local level, or at a personal level?
Can we learn from history?
Does an interest in history make us better people?
On their website the National Archives state: Without archives we could not study our personal histories or the histories of our communities or nations. There would be no historically rich novels and films. We would know nothing about the lives of our predecessors. We would not be able to revisit controversial political decisions or compelling legal cases. Archives are where the records of your life, your community, your business, your nation and your world are collected, kept safe and made accessible. We all benefit from archives – there are so many kinds of archives: in local authorities and governments, in businesses, in schools and universities, in charities, in private houses, in cultural and religious organisations… All playing their part in keeping our collective memory safe and accessible for future generations.
At a reception recently, when I told the Keeper of the National Archives that I was leading this discussion for Anvil, he said that he thought that the study of history was principally so that we could place ourselves personally within a historical framework, and that the ensuing sense of belonging gave us comfort.
A colleague contributed this: First, it provides you with knowledge of the world around you – the importance of context, of knowing your ‘place’ in time and location (hence the importance of combining ‘big picture’ chronological history with personal heritage, and comparing with the experience of others). It allows you to understand current affairs – for example the tension between Christianity and Islam in the middle east can be traced back to the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the repulsion of the Ottomans from the Mediterranean, the First World War and establishment of the Palestine mandate etc.
Second, the study of history provides you with skills that can be deployed throughout your life or career – to pose questions and conduct research to answer them, assembling and appraising the evidence, writing a coherent argument or report, delivering a presentation or lecture, defending one’s position or assimilating the views of others.
One of my clients suggested that I include this quote from Marcus Cicero: “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain perpetually a child. For what is the worth of a human life unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history.”
What is history? It is emphatically not simply the ability to recite the kings of England with their dates. At school I found history really boring as I could see no point to it, until I did a project on the history of houses and at that moment a lifelong enthusiasm was kindled. History is anything that has happened in the past. This can range from the discovery of penicillin, to the death of Richard III at Bosworth, to your grandfather’s medal from the first world war, to long extinct dinosaurs.
Why do we enjoy it? I am taking it for granted that we all find some aspect of history interesting. This aspect may be the great national and international picture, or it could be the history of your town or village, or it could be very personal and include the enjoyment from reading a relation’s diary about life on a farm in the 1920s. I have to admit that I have no idea why we enjoy it, and I am looking to Anvil members to enlighten me. Very few people do not find some aspect of history interesting. When trudging round a Roman amphitheatre, it gives a strange feeling knowing that real Romans actually walked on the same steps, that they shouted and cheered at a play by Seneca in this very place. When handling a document that is signed, for instance by Oliver Cromwell, I still get a thrill. I think I agree with the Keeper of the National Archives that, for me, the enjoyment comes from the sense of belonging to a world culture.
People have been enjoying history since the beginning of time. The oral tradition that led to Homer, to the Nordic sagas, to the story of King Arthur, all show that since the dawn of mankind the activities of historical or mythical figures have been both important culturally and as a source of entertainment.
Humans are unique in being able to pass on knowledge and much of this knowledge has taken the form of history.
Why do we study history? I am referring here to studying history at a deeper level than merely enjoying it. I would include here those who enjoy looking round a National Trust house with some background knowledge to place the architecture, the garden, and the family in historical context whether from reading the guidebook or from previous study. It also includes those who feel the need to learn more about something, such as their house or the city they are visiting while on holiday. And of course the true academics are included who provide so much of the backbone of historical study and analysis. I would also include those, like myself, who live on a daily basis with the raw materials of history in the form of written archives in our hands.
Is it important that we have a personal knowledge and understanding of history? I would argue that it is essential we do, so that we can better understand our fellow human beings, their actions, their thoughts and their attitudes. I believe that those who have a good sense of where they belong in the world, of the history of their family, of their locality, of their country, and of their social customs feel more secure. We only have to think of adopted children, so many whom have such an urge to find their birth mother in order to find out who they belong to.
Does history matter at a national level? Would a full understanding of the English Civil War, the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution have led to such enthusiastic recent toppling of dictators with the ensuing vacuum in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, and Syria?
Would a better understanding of the fall of the Ottoman Empire have led to a better handling of the more recent situation in the Middle East?
Would a better understanding of earlier wars in Afghanistan have influenced the current approach?
Would a better understanding of British cultural history have encouraged a better integration of the many foreign incomers to Britain over the last half century?
Does it matter if the archaeological sites around Stonehenge are disturbed so that we can have a better road to the west, or should the planners take account of the latent history and plan accordingly?
Is it more important to know about recent history, or is it all equally important?
Do the numerous anniversaries of events that we now commemorate such as the death of Shakespeare in 1616, the 1715 Jacobite rising, the First World War, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, really matter? Is it important that children learn about the Holocaust?
Can we learn from history? This follows on from the earlier question. Amongst historians the feeling is generally is that we cannot learn specifically how to deal with a problem by studying history as no two problems are the same. There is, however, a strong feeling that we can learn from how people in the past approached a problem, what their priorities were, and what extraneous matters they took into consideration. By looking at their approach we can gain an insight into how we might approach and solve a current problem.
Summary The LSE website includes the following which seems an apt summary: “The particular characteristics of History as a discipline: Its subject matter, distinguishing it from other humanities and social sciences, consists of the attempts of human beings in the past to organise life materially and conceptually, individually and collectively, while the object of studying these things is to widen students’ experience and develop qualities of perception and judgement. History provides a distinctive education by providing a sense of the past, an awareness of the development of differing values, systems and societies and the inculcation of critical yet tolerant personal attitudes. History’s ability to promote understanding between cultures and between national traditions remains as important as ever.”