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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Unpoetic History

Well, it can be poetry in a sense. But I thought having posted about historical subjects in my poems and subtler influences on my poems of having a History degree, I’d say a bit for History as a subject to study.

The arguments against it mostly go like this:

History is boring.

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

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

It won’t help you get a job.

It’s propaganda.

It’s unfashionable/ not cool.

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

History is bunk (Henry Ford).

Now you may have noticed that some of these arguments are contradictory: for example, propaganda that’s boring is highly incompetent propaganda. It might also occur to you that since the future hasn’t happened yet, there is a major question about how to predict it or prepare for it (and if you can’t predict it, you’re at some disadvantage in preparing for it).

If it weren’t for History, broadly understood, we wouldn’t now know who Henry Ford was or that he said it was bunk.

Now here are SOME arguments used FOR History:

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

History helps create a sense of nationhood.

History repeats itself.

History demonstrates great trends which are eventually unavoidable.

History is value-free and non-ideological.

Now again you might notice some contradictions: the first two arguments, for example, make assumptions about values to be promoted, which runs against the last argument. The third and fourth points also appear to contradict one another, or at least to concentrate on different aspects.

I’m going to stop there and come back to this. In the meantime, you might want to comment on some of those points, for or against.

Normal poetic service will be resumed as soon as possible.

CLUE: I’ve actually NOT stated any of the arguments that are to me the most powerful in favour of History.

History seeps into poetry

Last time I blogged about writing poetry about historical events. I admitted to having a History degree and a continuing fascination with the subject. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who knows that Marston Moor was a battle in the English Civil War, that a poem titled “Marston Moor” is historical. I wrote another poem called “Marie Antoinette”, and that’s a bit of a giveaway too.

But there are more subtle influences, ways in which historical awareness affects what I write just as awareness of landscape does even if the poem is not about landscape.

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Trapped in the hills and hunted down

By hidden bog and avalanche

By haunting wind and wolf, survivors

Stumble beside a clattering stream

Down to the valley of their dream

 

Where cupping hands bring out bright gold

Trees offer fruit of no known tang

And vivid song as no bird sang

Wakens the travellers from the cold

 

They name the valley, import the skills

To mine the gold and lay the roads

Till someone heads for other hills.

 

When no dark ridge is left, the wise

Explore the forests of the mind

And stare in one another’s eyes

 

Now out of mist on broken lands

What new and treacherous hills will rise?

That’s from the poem “Explorers”. The explorers go through great dangers to find they know not what. They find wonderful things, destroy them over time and move on. I can’t see that I could have written that without awareness of European exploration of other continents – and of the influence of the American West and the impact of the West (in the sense of a borderland of promise and danger for the settlers) ending.

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STONE STEPS

 

They found some stone around this place:

The pale steps worn by constant feet

Are buried in the wiry grass

And no-one knows who walked on them.

 

One end is by the river bank;

No sign of other end is left.

Perhaps this curious find is best

Donated to the town museum,

 

But somehow it seems better still

To leave them where they worked and wore.

Maybe they’re still a bridge of sorts,

Though what to what no-one can guess.

Well, this is a mysterious poem and no doubt not really about what it appears to be about, but the starting point is the historian’s or archaeologist’s curiosity about some remnant or ruin.

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CITY

 

Something started here

For a reason: the river was fordable

The tracks of cattle drovers drew together

The lie of the land and the weather were right for spinning

A governor found the distance from his palace

Just right for horses. Growth has a beginning.

 

Those origins are hidden, bulldozed, built on

Reinterpreted in guide-book and in myth

Slums and fine houses grow and are destroyed

The stonework of the bridge lies underwater

The factory’s become a heritage centre

From crumpled streets the tanners and the whores

Have gone but left their memories for a while

In street-names till some government

Dedicated to the pure and nice renamed them after

Generals, or trees that once were said to grow there.

Old stinking alleys strangled for office blocks

Ghostly survive in sections of quiet close

Or shopping trolley dumps round parking lots.

 

The city forgets; flexes; reinterprets.

People are born and die, the language changes

Suburbs seep out. Some time the city will end

Inventiveness, sweat, tears, frescos swallowed up

Slipping into decline, houses left empty,

Grass in the streets, but here and there a core

Churning more slowly and uncertainly;

Or suddenly in a fire that by scorched shadows

Commemorates the impertinence of daily life.

Unpeopled, not quite dead, the city will still be seen

In humps and ditches against the flow of land

By rumour, legend and a blackened buckle.

That’s from “Six Strands”, my longest poem: I used another bit of the same poem to illustrate how being a long-distance walker had influenced my poetry. The strand here on the city is pretty much all history: an awareness of processes by which cities grow up, change and die, but leave remains that can be interpreted even if all memory of the city has been lost. The picture of decline, for example, owes something to what I know of the last years of the Roman empire in Britain.

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Dust in marble halls, dust of marble halls

Ground jewels, rose roots strike

Lustre withers, slow-burning amethyst escapes

A lost note cries in the dark and I cannot find it

 

Out of the deathborn mud, worms rise

That’s from “Estuary Shore” and the point here is the intense sense of time, time over such a long period that marble halls are turned to dust, but a sense of renewal and rebirth as well.

I might add some comments next time about History and why I think Ford was wrong (“History is bunk”) about this as well as most other things except how to make money from making cars. But that’ll do for now. Oh, and if that dratted (or mysterious, intriguing) formatting has appeared again – sorry. The controls that should remove it do not work. It appeared one day and will not leave.

Now that is an idea – a poem pretending to be a load of formatting instructions.