Wonderful History

One more post on History before I get back to the poetry!

Last time I set out some common arguments against spending time on History:

History is boring.
Whenever someone says something is “boring”, they’re merely saying “this doesn’t interest ME”. So “I’m not interested in History because it’s boring” is not a powerful argument. However, it’s a shame many people have come away from school thinking History is boring. I’m not going to blame the teachers, though a few may lack passion for the subject. I’ll just point to how many well-watched TV programmes are about historical events (such as Hitler’s rise to power) or rework and fictionalise historical events (such as the Jack the Ripper murders) or use and convey historical understanding (such as family history programmes like the BBC’s “Who do you think you are?”).

That’s the past. It’s over now. I want to know about the future!

So how are you going to predict the future if you have no idea how things change over time?

Who needs/wants to know about a lot of dead kings/dead white males?

Apart from the point that people are not uninteresting because they’re dead (or white, or male, or royal even), History isn’t just about a long list of kings, queens or presidents. History basically is the study of whatever in the past we think is important – so take your pick. The history of the impact of the printing press or of the Black Death is not mainly about rulers.

It won’t help you get a job.

Unfortunately there’s some truth in this, more in some countries than others. But a good degree from a highly-rated university isn’t worthless because it’s in an unpopular subject – it’s just less saleable than some. What’s clear to me is that History can help you DO many jobs, and not just History Teacher.

Consider: History teaches you a huge amount about human motivation and the impact people’s actions have over time. It teaches you how major changes can occur almost unnoticed. It teaches you to ask of someone’s account or presentation not only “Is this factually true?” but “What is this person’s angle? What does he or she want others to believe?”. It teaches you how different other people, other societies, can be. Where historical facts are vastly numerous, as with most 20th century History, it teaches you how to select and marshal facts in a coherent argument. Where factual information is sparse, as with the 5th to 8th centuries AD in Western Europe, it teaches you how to read between the lines.

It’s propaganda.

Anything open to argument can be propaganda and it’s true that in totalitarian societies, history is written to support the rulers. Deeply patriotic or nationalistic historians write history that glosses over cruelties and injustices made by their beloved country and unduly stress its positive characteristics. A Catholic historian (to take just one example from the field of religion) is unlikely to argue that the papal claim to succession from St Peter is bogus even if he or she has come on evidence that might point that wayand an anticlerical atheist is quite likely to underestimate the church’s role in, shall we say, limiting the oppression of conquered peoples. But history is international and it gets harder and harder to wall out the voices undermining the propaganda. History teaches us to question propaganda.

It’s unfashionable/ not cool.

This is a bit like “it’s boring”. There’s no answer because it’s not really saying anything. If you thought History was important or interesting, but saw it was unfashionable, what should you do? If you always think unfashionable things are uninteresting or unimportant, what does that say about you?

In any case, while History in schools and at university has declined, there’s more and more History on TV.

It’s all very well, but it mustn’t crowd out Maths/English/foreign languages/computer skills/sport from the syllabus.

Well, yes, you can make a case for all subjects, but isn’t your main language advanced by using it to read and write about History, and isn’t the use of statistics to illustrate points in History practical Maths teaching? The same sort of argument applies to computers, though not to sport unless you count vigorous disputes between academics who don’t like one another.

History is bunk (Henry Ford).

If it weren’t for History, we’d have forgotten who Ford was. History is full of examples of the sort of hubris Ford displayed as soon as his attention shifted from making cars. History analyses what the effects of Ford’s business success and production methods were.


So the arguments FOR? I listed a few popular ones.


We should understand how our nation arose, the main events in its history and how its values developed and were demonstrated.

Well, yes, except nation, country and state are not the same. It makes sense for all citizens, whether born there or not, to know something of the origins of the place and society they live in. BUT with this sort of history there are two big risks – that the course of events that could have gone very differently is made to seem inevitable; and that the story of the nation or state is sanitised so the best is stressed and the worst is ignored or belittled. I’d also argue that British history for Britons (or American for Americans or Indian for Indians) is not enough: we should come to understand something about the history of a different place and people.

History helps create a sense of nationhood.

“Patriotic” history can do this, and understanding the roots of a national culture and identity is important. But if the AIM of history teaching is to promote a national identity, it becomes propaganda and inevitably lies if only by omission. For example, the “myth” of Dunkirk (not actually a myth, as it actually happened) is important to at least some people’s sense of Britishness – but how many people know the evacuation would have been far less successful without a French army fighting to hold off the Germans while the British evacuated? It wasn’t for nothing that Churchill sent back the Navy for one more night to get the French off too.

History repeats itself.

Up to a point it does. It is useful to be able to recognise in a situation something that has happened before. But as with any patterning and classification by our minds, we often get it wrong. It isn’t only generals who are always fighting the last war.  But maybe that’s a good example of how history does repeat itself. Over and over again we apply the lessons from the last big mistake too literally.

History demonstrates great trends which are eventually unavoidable.

Marxists think this and so do many religious people. Certainly you can see great trends in history, but are they really unavoidable?

History is value-free and non-ideological.

Nowadays historians generally hold back from passing moral judgements, but this is relatively new. Ideologies clearly do affect how historians write history, both in influencing judgements on the effectiveness or benefits of something and in influencing what we think is important. As History is the study of WHAT WE THINK IS IMPORTANT in the past, your values and structure of belief clearly must influence what you think noteworthy and what you stress. But falsify the facts and you’ll be rightly challenged.

Now what is missing from these arguments?

Well, understanding the complexity and variety of human motivation and mindsets. Understanding just how DIFFERENT humans can be from our own society (which is why the history of your own country is not enough). A sympathetic understanding: ultimately statistics and ruins can take you so far, but you need to apply your own human experience and get into the mind of someone very different in order to understand actions and cultures that seem very strange to us.

And that’s close to literature, even to poetry. History is a sort of science fiction, but based on truth.


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  1. Great – agree with everything you say… as Santanaya said those who do not understand their Past are doomed to repeat…
    I find it fascinating and horrible that having thrown off the yoke of the Tsars, the poor Russians then had to endure a worse fate..that the conflict between the English and the Irish has been going on since Norman times, and so on… we seem to continually re-create the past !!!

    Found your Dunkirk references interesting… My father was in the Fifth Tanks who didn’t get away from France until 17 June, having been ordered to stay to support the French on the Somme – only they never turned up.

    It was only Alanbrooke’s efforts that got them and others away just before the capitulation, when they would have ended up as POWS – 150,000 of them !

    One of those intriguing little side bars to history.. Alanbrooke having been recalled to London, leaving Alexander to sort out Dunkirk, had a week’s leave before being sent off to Bordeaux to organise another resistance with the French… but realising that they weren’t going to fight he then had to convince Churchill to bring back these troops in the nick of time…
    History – I love it !!!

    • Thanks. Having recently read a biography of De Gaulle, I’m left with the impression that most of the French troops, despite their terrible pummelling, were willing to fight on if they had clear leadership, but that was lacking from the top. There were also failures of co-ordination which affected them as well as allies: for example, in one of De Gaulle’s operations in 1940, promised air support failed to materialise.

      I suppose I stress the Dunkirk record partly because of modern American jibes.

      Yes, one aspect of revolutions – and national independence movements – is that they often end up adapting the methods of the former oppressors. That’s least so where the revolution is building on local institutions and habits, for example America, throwing off British rule, having local elective institutions and a tradition of local self-government well in place, and India at independence with Indians having already reached senior positions.

      • De Gaulle !!! Yes, The only biography I’ve read of him was a hagiography… it’s so hard to get the real story !! ..
        A French friend tells me de Gaulle wrote a history of the French army without ever mentioning Waterloo !!!

      • Whoops!

        And the relations between Wellington and Blucher are still a matter of dispute between some English and German historians: one of the latter alleged that Wellington deliberately misled Blucher to keep him out of the battle so the triumph would be Wellington’s. I doubt if that’s true: Wellington knew it would be a “damned close-run thing”.

        The De Gaulle biography I read was by Jonathan Fenby: “The General”. I thought it excellent. It explores De Gaulle’s courage, nerve and achievements without glossing over his arrogance, his posturing and (sometimes) rudeness or (count this as a plus or a minus) his ability to play a good hand of low politics in 1958.I found it particularly revealing on De Gaulle’s royalist family background and how far he moved from that. Apart from his achievements in the Second World War (and gaining clear control of the Free French was an achievement in itself), I think you only have to look at the durability of the major changes in French politics that flowed from the Fifth Republic to see greatness.

        One major revelation for me made his hostility to the Americans much more understandable. I was amazed to learn that Roosevelt had a pet project (which De Gaulle learnt of) to create a new state from Belgium and a bit of northern France, and (slightly less amazing) that the American plan for France after liberation was government for the time being by American military governors rather than the immediate creation of a French republican government.

        I don’t know of that history of the French army. There is a superb book “L’Armee Francaise: Histoire Militaire Politique” by a conservative French journalist (I forget his name), but it’s more about the culture and politics of the army than about military events themselves.

  2. We can learn so much from history, whether it’s wars, periods of art history, or other types. It’s amazing to me when people say ‘it doesn’t matter what happened back then.” HELLO PEOPLE – we learn from the past! Thaks for the quality post here, Simon.

  3. Knowledge of history is a superior virtue….like you mentioned once it even enhances your poetry and there is so much a writer can do in the historical fiction genre. Thanks Simon!

    • Thanks, Neelima, and it’s fascinating to see how perspectives on history change. Historical figures and events are constantly being reassessed in the light of our new concerns and knowledge. Moreover, even with an event as international as the financial crash of 2008, the perspective from India, from Britain, from America, from Japan, from Egypt, from Germany will be different.

  4. Well you stirred up something there! – The thing I’d add to the mix is – to extend your premise that History is what we think is important – to read History is what we think is important NOW.

    How can we possibly write a history of the building of the Egyptian pyramids when we have no knowledge of what was important to the Egyptians of the time?

    I was four when WWII ended and if I look at my childhood memories of the social mores of THEN and the same again of NOW – how could I hope to write a History of the war that would be relevant to a current generation – there is just so much that would be beyond their experience when so much that happened then was beyond my experience.

    Perhaps this is where poetry fits.

    PS – thanks for reading about my rooks on http://ja2da.com

    • Thanks, David. Yes, of course we must understand social attitudes and values of the time. For example, someone trying to interpret the English Civil War and Commonwealth with no understanding of either village society or religious ideas of the time, would be in an artificial world. I’d go further and say it should be a sympathetic understanding in the sense that we can feel ourselves into the situations – which indeed is where poetry can come in. But we can’t, and shouldn’t, try to abandon our own attitudes and understanding we may have that people at that time didn’t. For example, I’d hope a history of the Crusades would be written without wholeheartedly adopting the attitudes of the crusaders (towards Byzantium as well as towards Islam), and in writing about early cities we may have a better understanding than their inhabitants of why disease was rife.


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