In just about a months time I will have what is affectionately termed a “historical reflections” paper to do. I have been sat here thinking about this essay and what it will mean. I have come to the decision (actually it was something I said a while ago) that this paper will be very similar to historical blogging (Can you see where this is going?). I therefore propose, over the course of the next few weeks to try and do some historical blogging, about general things relating to history. Feedback would be much appreciated.
So here’s the first one: Why study history at all?
This is one of these broad ranging general questions that means different things to different people. Someone might study the Second World War for example because they had a relation who was killed in it. This ‘personal’ experience is the driving force behind a study of history. This is obviously different to someone who studies the Norman Conquest. In this case such a ‘personal’ element to the study is, to my mind at least, missing. If then we cannot ascertain the reasons behind any given individuals study of history, would it be more worthwhile asking why study a certain period of history? Why for example, should we study the Norman Conquest? And, moving this question on a level, should we study the Norman Conquest ahead of the Second World War, for example? Then taking it another way, why do people feel more inclined to study ‘big’ events such as the wars or the Norman Conquest, and tend to ignore smaller, less ‘glamorous’ events such as the 1832 Reform Act? And what of ‘modern’ history? Studies into Thatcherism, or the First Iraq War would surely provide people with a greater understanding of why we are where we are today. And, more importantly, if this is the case, then why are such periods of history not taught in our schools or colleges? Why are they ignored in favour of ‘basic’ history which is spouted out by school teachers, and is, in most cases wrong or ill-informed?
And does this all relate to what the student of history wants to get out of their studies? If so, then this is, by its very definition, something completely subjective and impossible to talk about without making broad sweeping statements which may or may not be applicable to some people.
Thus far then, there are more questions than answers relating to why people would choose to study history. One of the standard responses to the question is the very cliched phrase “the past is the only place one can learn from”. In essence, this statement is true, everything is now in the past (with the exception of the future) and therefore we can only learn from history. The trouble is, that such a statement is reliant upon people actually learning. This doesn’t therefore just apply to history scholars. In reality everybody should be a historian of some description. Life, as is frequently stated, is one big learning curve, and if we run with the prior logic that the past is the only place you can learn from; and if a historian is one who studies the past, then, if we follow this logically, everyone should be a historian, studying and learning from the past. The trouble is, not everything is this clear cut. Logic very often doesn’t really apply.
So we return then to the initial question, why study history at all? As has been shown, there can be no clear cut reason for undertaking such studies. Often an amalgamation of factors contributes to one taking up the challenge. Studying history, as has been shown, raises more questions than it ever satisfactorily answers. Yet the indefatiguable want for knowledge is one which, to some extent, is fulfilled by history. There are few other subjects with such a wide range of fields. In fact, it could very plausibly and easily be argued that no other subject is as important as history. History is the metaphorical subject umbrella which houses every other subject under the sun. There is history of science, history of art, history of music, of religion, of politics, of individuals. History is everywhere.
Which is why everyone is touched by it. Which is why everyone relates to it in some form or other every day. Our towns and villages are littered with references, symbols, reminders of the past. Wander down ‘Coronation Road’ or ‘ Oak Tree Lane’ and try to appreciate why they were so called, look at the statue of someone standing in the town square and work out who they were and why they have been remembered. Memorials of those who died in the wars are common sights across smaller villages and the coverage that Remembrance Sunday gets every year is testament to the continuing importance of history to our society.
So perhaps the question should be not why study history at all, but instead why not study history? Why not consider the importance of various events which have helped shape the society in which we live today? Scientists often counter this with the simplistic “without science you wouldn’t have medicines, technology, electricity and the like”. I would suggest that without history, we would have even less…