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...'|
|Simon de Montfort,|
Earl of Leicester
- on his tomb it says
'Pioneer of representative
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!
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 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 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.