Saturday, 9 April 2016

Does History Matter?

Last year a popular British TV quiz programme revealed that a third of those questioned did not know who was on the British throne in 1859, more worryingly, a similar number couldn’t name the monarch in 1979! Admittedly the question was not straightforwardly phrased but even so…… Does this matter? Well, at the most basic level maybe not but it is symptomatic of our frenetic clawing towards the future and lust for something new, at the expense of our heritage. In England at least, history is continually being squeezed from the school curriculum and what is taught is often disjointed and lacking in context. Yes there really is a whole load of history between the Tudors and the Victorians, of which many school children are blissfully unaware, even supposing they have grasped that the Tudors come first! And yes, history does extend beyond the twentieth century political history, so beloved of the examination syllabus.

At the same time the news featured an eighteen year old American scientist who had discovered a diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer. His mantra was, ‘Science is using your curiosity to change the world.’ Undoubtedly this is true in his case and he deserves every credit. When I explain what I study, I often feel that others think it is self-indulgent and that it does not contribute to the greater good. I am not suggesting history is more important than medical research but I maintain that, in some ways, it is as important. More and more studies are suggesting that an understanding of the past is crucial to our well-being in the present. American research, by Dr Marshall Duke, investigating childrens resiliency and ability to deal with stress, discovered that children who knew more about their families:-
  • Tended to do better than other children when they faced challenges.
  • Proved to be more resilient and able to moderate the effects of stress.
  • Had a stronger sense of control over their lives.
  • Had higher self-esteem.
  • Believed that their family functioned successfully.
  • Felt that they belonged to something larger than themselves.
Studies by The Heritage Lottery Fund found that there are positive benefits to an awareness of heritage that relate to quality of life, community cohesion and creating better places to live. Can historians use their curiosity to change the world? I am an idealist, if we each change our little bit of the world, perhaps they can.

History is about using the past to inform the present and the future. It can hone analytical skills and teach people to question but it can also engender a sense of belonging, to a family or a to community. An awareness of a shared past creates unity in the present. In the dim and distant past (well ten years ago), when I had a history classroom, I had history related quotations depicted in coloured speech bubbles around the wall and these now head and foot pages on my website. Perhaps the most telling of these is George Santayana’s on the home page ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fullfil it’. Sadly many are not learning from the past and many never will but I for one have the vision to think we could try and encourage people not to repeat so many past mistakes.

So yes, it matters but how do we spread the word? As my passion (far to far gone to call this merely a hobby) and what passes for my job overlap, I either work 150 hours a week, or I do nothing but enjoy myself! We can introduce others to history in a more moderate way. A bit like faith, we can take history out with us and introduce it to those with whom we come into contact. Not, I hasten to add, in a pushy overbearing way (that doesn’t work for religion either!) but gently, without people even realising that what they are doing is engaging in history. I wrote about this for the British Association for Local History’s newsletter. This blog post is already long enough, so I won’t repeat it all here now but there are many inventive ways in which this can be done; if you watch this space I may be inspired to feature some here. I am particularly focussed on engaging young people with history and heritage. Some of my descendants are on their way to visit (excited face) so I have the opportunity to put this into practice. Yes, I am talking about two year olds and yes it is possible. 

I know you will say ‘I don’t have the time’ or ‘My friends and neighbours don’t have the time’. Originally this post was entitled ‘Making Time for History and why this Matters’ but I have spent so long on why it matters that I haven’t made time to address how to make time in our busy lives. Another day, another blog post - I promise.

Janet Few


  1. I have to blame the education system -- at least in my own case. Other than the history of science -- which was interesting in the portrayal of characters and the events culminating in revelation -- I had no interest at all,and dropped it as soon as possible. I think a turning point with many people is when they realise that their own history is being "stolen", that memories are fading, and that just a few old photos will be left one day.

  2. Thanks, Janet, this is a shocking (first paragraph) and heartening post. As a self-confessed history addict, I agree with you... my passion for history goes back to my childhood. I'm sure that that's why I love genealogy so much.

    And my favourite period in history is the bit between the Tudors and Victorians. Let's hear it for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries!

  3. If only I could have a snappy comment to reel them in! Our family and the history surrounding it is very interesting. And the things that aren't THAT interesting are at least thought provoking. When I think of my Mayflower people getting on that boat, I have to wonder why I'm so scared of going anywhere unfamiliar. If it were up to me I'd still be scrubbing the castle floor at Downton Abby. And my ancestors who came later in the 1860s. Getting on the boat, leaving everyone and every thing behind and assuming they would never see most of them again. I contemplate emigrating to Canada and then decide it's far too much work at my age. What kind of an attitude is that! I could live another 20+ years there.


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