06 June, 2011

"You need to know where you’ve been to know where you are at the present and to plan where you should go next."

In  a recent blog fellow blogger John Evans  quoted Henry Ford: "I don't know much about history, and I wouldn't give a nickle for all the history in the world. History is more or less bunk. It is a tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history we make today".  John  countered Ford’s blinkered view of the world  with that of American author/historian  David McCullough who said "A nation that forgets its past can function no better than an individual with amnesia".

School gates in Eyam - 'Ring a ring a roses...'
For many years now the history curriculum in schools has been a bit of a battle ground.  Government  initiatives, a constantly changing national curriculum, curriculum ‘squeeze’ as more and more subjects claim a place in the classroom, different perceptions and beliefs as to what constitutes 'history' and sadly,  perhaps a falling off of interest in the young who want to be in the present rather than in the past' These have all combined to increasingly marginalise the subject. Confusion about what constitutes history is not a new phenomena. I was recently watching the DVD of Vera Brittain’s autobiography 'Testament of Youth' – a book I love. I was reminded of Vera’s horror in her Oxford interview in the early years of the twentieth century. She was disappointed and angry to discover that 'Modern History' (which she hoped to study)was not at all 'modern' - it was actually the study of times that ended at least half a century before!

Simon de Montfort,
 Earl of Leicester
 - on his tomb it says
'Pioneer of representative
History’s  marginalisation is sad for I have so often, over the years, wondered how people with little historical perspective, knowledge or understanding make sense of the world. Last week my wife and I had a day in Derbyshire and stopped in Eyam . How could you possible understand Eyam if you did not have at least some knowledge of the seventeenth century and the great plague. As you walk past the primary school in the centre of the village, for example, the lovely gates are decorated with metal figures and writing – the words of 'Ring a ring a roses....'    With no knowledge of history the significance of this would be completely lost on you. They would be simply pretty gates for kiddies showing a nursery rhyme! If you watch a film such as one of my favourites 'Once Upon a Time in America' – it would be impossible to get full value for money unless you were aware of the history and background of prohibition in the US. If you watch the Prime Minister speaking in Westminster  your viewing and understanding will I believe be diminished if you don’t know a little of how our Parliament works and how it came to be so. I often drive through Leicester and pass the De Montfort Hall and the De Montfort University - I wonder how many others pass them  by and never know the great historical significance the name has not only for Leicester and our own country but for democracies all over the world?

Of course, thousands with no historical knowledge of seventeenth century history will visit Eyam and will just see and enjoy a picture postcard village – but they will have missed its whole point. Millions perhaps will watch 'Once Upon a Time in America' and simply enjoy a violent gangster movie. And a large portion of the population will watch the state  opening of Parliament each year and see only  a quaint bit of theatre when the door to the House of Commons is slammed in Black Rod’s face and he  hammers on the door to call the members to listen to the monarch.

Nye Bevan - found the  way forward
by looking back!
For if you don’t 'know' any history you have no basis, perspective or context  in which to place the things that you see or hear. Everything, therefore,  must be experienced at a very superficial level because there is little or no other understanding. And that, it seems to me, is not only crucial but typifies much of the modern world – the emphasis upon the obvious, the instantaneous and the present  which brings with it a shallowness because there are few reference points upon which to base  judgements or to explain what you have seen or heard or experienced.  I am aware this sounds a bit like the grumblings of a grumpy old man – well, I suppose it is. But I firmly believe that one of the problems that we have as a society  at all levels – political, the media, the world of music or science or economics or any other facet you care to mention - is the lack of context and history. The headline grabbing newspapers, political spin,  celebrity culture, fashion are all  things of the moment - instantly consumed and even more quickly forgotten. "Today’s headlines are tomorrows fish and chip papers"  someone once said – very true.   And, because it is true it allows things of little moment -  like New Labour - to suddenly blossom, achieve star status but then  fade into disrepute with even greater speed as its short comings are realised. It allows someone like Tony Blair to be heralded as the salvation of the world and yet a year or two little to be despised and derided. It allows people to become famous overnight for perhaps rather dubious qualities but, like Hans Christian Anderson’s  Emperor in his new clothes to soon be seen as "naked as the day he was born"! It allows a government policy to be hyped and promoted as the panacea for society’s ills but a few weeks a later to be recognised for what it really is – an ill thought out 'quick fix'. Or to put it another  way, how can I judge if a book is 'good' if I have never read others? How can I know that an opera singer is good or bad if I have nothing to compare him or her with? With no history or context it is easy for the poor, the bad or the worthless to be accepted as good or worthy or of value - because people don't know any better.

But history gives a context. It perhaps allows us to make more valid judgements because of the perspective it gives us.  It is not about dwelling in the past but in using the experience and knowledge of the past and its people and events to understand our modern world and its problems. It allows us to make sounder judgements as to the worth of a policy or a person.  A  good example could be seen in this morning’s Guardian where economics editor Larry Elliott put forward the hypothesis that America’s economic problems reflected the problems that have beset former great empires in their death throes:  "America" said Elliott "in 2011 is Rome in 200AD or Britain on the eve of the first world war: an empire at the zenith of its power but with cracks beginning to show". He went on to say: "The experience of both Rome and Britain suggests that it is hard to stop the rot once it has set in, so here are the a few of the warning signs of trouble ahead: military overstretch, a widening gulf between rich and poor, a hollowed-out economy, citizens using debt to live beyond their means, and once-effective policies no longer working. The high levels of violent crime, epidemic of obesity, addiction to pornography and excessive use of energy may be telling us something: the US is in an advanced state of cultural decadence" Now I don’t know if Elliott is correct – although having argued the same point myself in a number of contributions to the Guardian over the past few  months - I am tempted to agree with his premise. What can’t be disputed, however, is that a knowledge of history allows him to make this judgement.
The steel mills and mines of Ebbw Vale which
gave Bevan his bearings

The whole point of what I am trying to say was summed up beautifully by Michael Foot the Labour politician. Foot,  government minister, leader, orator and former Labour  MP for Ebbw Vale,  often related a story about the great Nye Bevan who had been the Labour MP for Ebbw Vale  prior to Foot. Bevan 'the father of the National Health Service'  often went for walks in the hills above the town and sometimes got lost in the mist (some of it caused by  the vast  steel and mining industries of the area). "When I got lost" said Bevan "I would look back to the town and see the glow from the furnaces and the pit heads sticking up through the mist. This allowed me to work out where I was and where I needed to go next. You need to know where you’ve been to know where you are at the present and to plan where you should go next. When I’d got my bearings I could stride on."

History isn’t just about looking back it’s about knowing where to go in the future.

Stalin like Mao and others
 got rid of historians
  to develop his totalitarian state
It is also worth saying that a study of civilisations soon reveals that another sign of decline  and the rise of totalitarian regimes (think Stalin, think Mao, think Hitler and many more) is that history has become 'old hat', historians ridiculed, and then history is re-written. George Orwell recognised this when he wrote his prophetic 'Ninteen Eighty Four'. To deny history is to deny civilisation - and when a society marginalises its history - be it a great civilisation or a tiny remote tribe - it is in great danger of losing its soul, its character, its raison d'etre. It becomes a vacuum and into that space steps something else.

It is a great sadness to me that history has suffered a bad press in recent years and is so under threat in our schools. The study of history, be it a knowledge of great events or people , be it a study of the movements and trends that have influenced peoples, be it political or social or economic history should, in my view, be one of the few compulsory subjects for it is one of the bastions of civilisation that not only gives people a context for the world – so that they can enjoy a film or a visit to a pleasant village like Eyam – but it is also one of the major ways in which our democracy and society can be protected from those ideas and people that would overturn it.  

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