History and the lessons from our past
“We spend a great deal of time studying history, which, let’s face it, is mostly the history of stupidity.” Stephen Hawking
History, (noun), – the study of past events, particularly in human affairs. From an Indo-European word histōr, meaning ‘learned, wise man.’ Online Oxford Dictionary.
The role of history
I might not have done well in my younger school days remembering facts simply to pass exams, but I’ve always had a love of history. History is more than just remembering dates and the names of British monarchs. I loved hearing about acts of bravery, resistance to cruel rulers, stories of the successful or failed underdog. I even felt anger towards those who acted selfishly, who were deluded by power or who were simply ruthless in their ambition. All of these acts impacted on the lives of the many, for good or for bad. These are human stories and we can relate them all today.
The subject of history serves a very different function in our world. Unlike science and engineering that gears students up for potential jobs in industry, history is about applying the lessons of the past so that we can transform society through ourselves. Is that an unrealistic ideology? That history can transform people into better human beings?
For those of us who have often wondered why we still remember quadratic equations and wonder about its purpose in adult life, history ensures that we remember and reflect on the actions of those peoples in our past. By questioning these events and looking at all perspectives we can actually make an attempt at making sure that they
A – happen again because they work, or perhaps more importantly
B – don’t happen again because they weren’t good ideas in the first place, and that they caused much distress and suffering as a result.
Human psychology and behaviour
“Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” Sir Winston Churchill.
Unlike technology, human psychology does not differ but how we interpreted the world around us varied in many ways – our predecessors tended to believe in the ruling strength of religion, and human acts were being conducted in the name of a divine being ‘to help others’ better themselves. Some people genuinely believed they were certainly better than others in terms of faith, class, wealth etc.
The subject of history is enjoyed by many but is studied by a variety of academic specialists – archaeologists, anthropologists, ethnohistorians, museum ethnographers (that’s me) etc. This is because the subject of history offers an initial grounding and insight into the period of time being explored. Written documents from the time (aka primary sources) are highly valued because they were produced at the moment these historical events were happening. By reading them we can experience a reality history text books cannot offer the reader. They open up to us personal, political, economic glimpses into a very real human world.
History in our schools
“History is for human self-knowledge… the only clue to what man can do is what man has done.” R.G. Collingwood, historian.
The subject of British history is taught in schools, initially to learn of one’s identity and our relationship with our European neighbours. There is also an opportunity to learn about one of the non-European civilisations and contrast it with British history. Key stage 3 (students aged 11-14) explores Britain’s modern history and the challenges for the nations of Europe e.g. events that led to both World Wars. KS3 also includes the study of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Holocaust. Clearly students are learning to analyse and question evidence and certain points of view – this is an important skill to have and means that young people can learn to be more objective.
There’s also a lot of meaty subjects to feed student minds and encourage them to think carefully about our past. Teaching today is very different to the writing on blackboard with chalk days that I had experienced; students have access to a variety of materials, which clearly stimulate the mind and the imagination. Teachers in the UK today are not just educating our young, they’re also inspiring them. They work hard in getting students to stretch their minds.
However, for Key Stage 4 (GCSE) history is not set as a core subject, it’s an option. English, maths and science are considered core subjects, but why not history? For many of these students, aged 14-16, history can be a transformative subject. If science and maths can aid industry in the future (and according to contemporary political belief the economy) then the subject of history can act as an agent of self-development and change(and in turn help to improve society). It is acknowledged, even by the House of Lords (debate 20 October 2011: Teaching of History in Schools), that history is a subject most likely to be required or preferred for entry to degree courses. So it is considered an important subject.
What is being missed?
History teaching in schools was traditionally done by teachers feeding students facts; the pupil’s role being passive. This was my experience of grammar school education and the only ‘O’ level I passed aged 16. Fortunately teachers today have a very dynamic role and engage students in different ways for students to see history being presented through books, plays, reenactors even museum objects and handling real artefacts from archaeological digs. Students now get to experience the reality of history through the ‘wow’ factor of touching authenticity. But is this enough? What do these things achieve?
In 2010, Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference stated what he believed was wrong with history being taught in schools – the rich history of Britain;
“Our history has moments of pride, and shame, but unless we fully understand the struggles of the past we will not properly value the liberties of the present.”
This means not teaching students singular unconnected episodes of history but rather a history that makes sense through its connectivity. From his own experience of the education system, historian Simon Schama responded with his view in the Guardian newspaper (‘My Vision for History in School’, 9 November 2010) that this should also include Britian’s role in India – to better understand the effects of colonialism. Rightwing historian Niall Ferguson was asked in that same year to rewrite the history curriculum. According to Ferguson
“A staggering 80 per cent of A-level candidates study the history of the Third Reich… there can be no justification for this excessive focus on the history of a single European country over a period of just a dozen years.”
This form of thinking is completely flawed, even nonsensical. One doesn’t just study the 12 years of the Reich but also the preceding years that were responsible for its rise – the end of the Great War, the humiliating and devastating effects of the Treaty of Versailles, the effects of Spanish flu, the great economic crash of the 20s and the failure of the Weimar Republic, the growth of National Socialism; all of these events in a 20-year period presented Hitler with the right conditions to acquire power. So we should rightly ignore Ferguson as history teachers have taught students these connected history units. It allows us to make sense of the world at that time. It teaches us that nations should instil compassion in their policies than vengeance. It shows us that the diplomatic skills in talking to one another gives nations an opportunity for positive outcomes (although sometimes this doesn’t work).
In history, much can be achieved in the world in a time span of 12-20 years, especially if you had access to technology. Does this mean that students shouldn’t learn the following? They’re all connected to British history and our identities.
1 – In 1939, fearing that the scientists of Nazi Germany would develop an atomic bomb, scientists in the US under the project name of the Manhattan Project learned how to build a bomb. It took them just six years and the bomb was detonated in Japan to end the Second World War.
2 – In 1935-6 it took Italy 8 months to invade and conquer Ethiopia as part of its desire to become an Imperial power.
3 – The Spanish Civil War lasted but 2 years 8 months but the causes that underlay the conflict reach back into the 19th century. I learnt this in school (the second time I did my A-levels).
4 – The Spanish arrived in Mexico in 1519, one soldier being infected with smallpox. In 2 years the Aztec population was devastated by this Old World disease, which resulted not only in people dying in large numbers but this greatly affected the power of the ruling elite. The Spanish took advantage of this situation and subjugated a dwindled population. The Aztecs as a power were gone.
There is one solid reason why students do learn the history of the Third Reich. Post-war poverty led to a public hatred and a persecution of ethnic minorities as scapegoats, which led to the start of another major conflict because Hitler had ambition to dominate Europe. Students learn about these years (as I did at school) so that we learn from the mistakes and bad decisions made by others so that they’re not repeated. What was happening in the 1930s we’re seeing being repeated again in Europe and the USA.
History lessons for today
In the UK, history at school does not teach students much about the British Empire nor its multiple perspectives. A story that begins in the 16th century in North America and which ultimately and indirectly leads to the biggest profit-making venture of any Empire, it can also claim to be one of the cruelest in the 19th century. Its decline at the end of the Great War of European imperial egos was therefore justified. It is a history that requires challenging, especially today with increasing public display of racism. It feels like we’ve gone back in time because we’re simply not learning about the past.
Clearly, lessons have not been learnt by some people who are allowed into power. This is likely because they haven’t had a good education or simply because they’re evil and want to exploit an opportunity for their own ends. As a result atrocities are still being committed in the world. Given that today’s West is rank with an open hatred of race and fears of immigration, people are openly showing their anger and frustration towards the innocent. They lack understanding, knowledge and wisdom. Long term job loss, poverty, poor education, inadequate housing are realities for many people living in first world nations. The reasons behind their circumstances are often linked to the increased disparity between rich and poor and are rarely voiced in the media, tackled in the courts and resolved. Justice is lacking.
We see this repeated in history (the rich get richer, the poor continue to suffer) and I think this highlights the importance of having an education; it’s far more than just reading, writing and counting but a study of history provides us with a set of fresh eyes to see truths often expressed, which are rarely spelled out to us, we require a new enlightenment – one based on fact and not political or religious bias.
Knocking down historic statues in our cities is also not the answer (see my earlier entry on Cecil Rhodes). Protesting and throwing bricks at one another is also not a solution. Complaining about immigration is a falsity and not the cause of our problems, history shows us that humans have migrated around the world since time began. Our societies are rich because they are diverse. We are better people because we are surrounded by many different cultures – we’re the same humans with different beliefs and attitudes but with the very same needs. Religion won’t solve our problems and hate won’t produce any solutions and history can provide us with similar examples of routes we shouldn’t go down.
I believe that by studying history we can all learn from the past, which helps us make sense of the present that will enable us to make a better future for ourselves. Perhaps this notion is romantic. History tells us what humans are great at achieving and what they’re clearly rubbish at doing. Above all, and in seriousness, history offers us hope and hope is what the modern world needs.