The burden of history

A few years ago I was having a drink with a colleague, a professor of history, when he suddenly declared to me that it was no longer possible to teach his subject. History, he said, was not just about learning dates and names, it was about understanding the era and the people. But this had become impossible for younger people today, he suggested. And why? Because the cultural and social experiences and assumptions of today’s younger generation were so radically different from that of any previous generation that there was now an insufficient link with the past; in particular, he argued, you could not really grasp any period in history beyond the immediate past if you had no concept either of an agrarian economy and rural life, or of religion as a social force. He felt that every time he stood in front of a group of students and asked them to think of some past era from the perspective of those who lived through it, the task thoroughly defeated them.

I think there are two questions worth considering here. First, have the experiences and insights of this new generation really changed so much more than those of any previous one? I have spent a good deal of time reading Victorian fiction, and what comes through the literature of that era is a sense that history had been totally disconnected from the present: the Industrial Revolution changed everything – not just technology, but also lifestyle and outlook. And yet a sense of history could be preserved. I suspect that the generations which preceded and followed the Roman empire must also have seemed also to be at a vast cultural distance from Rome.

Secondly, is it so fatal for students of history to stand outside the societies they are studying? Or perhaps this: surely history is about learning how to bridge the gaps between where we are now and what we are observing in the past, even when those gaps are big? In fact, the bigger the gaps, the more important it becomes for today’s society to develop a sense of what went before.

And then again, is it not true that however much the past seems to be so very different, beneath the surface everything is remarkably similar? Are we not able to watch Shakespeare’s plays and see our own society depicted there? In fact, as we look at the past, are the differences between them and us really that much more profound than less efficient weaponry and baggier clothes?

Not only should we understand history, I think we can.

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15 Comments on “The burden of history”

  1. elementaryteacher Says:

    I don’t agree with this professor friend of yours at all. My young students are absolutely fascinated by history. Why? I make it relevant to their lives NOW. This professor is probably talking on and on, boring his students. A teacher needs to entertain as well as teach. (Would you pay for a lecture that bored you to death?? NO–you expect the lecturer to be INTERESTING. It’s NO DIFFERENT in the classroom!) Speaking as a teacher of two decades, I think it probably was time for this professor to get out of teaching and do someting eles, perhaps research.

    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas (in the Middle East)

  2. Vincent Says:

    Hmmmmmm, it does rather depend on what you want from your history. For myself, I’m awaiting the find which pushes things beyond the Oldupai Gorge. Or even better, clearer tracks to that point.
    On our little Island, a point or two about the solidity of glacial ice or that Poler bears wander round on pack-ice a few inches thick. This would shove the settlement back to at least to the Aurignacian. Then the idea that everyone crossed from the Mull of Kintyre can be put to sleep. Or even, a point or two, indicating that it is far easier to import the Tech’ than the entire peoples. Celts and beaker-folk, my foot. And when once and for all it is decided that WE on this Island developed and sent out more than we absorbed, where that reducing education formula developed by Whitehall and Maynooth for our kids is shot out of the water once and for all time. When the monastic tradition at St Catherine on the Sinai or on Mt Athos was in its time seen as being lesser than places like the Skelligs.
    If in history, we remove 19C ideas of state & church control, and give the kids something to be proud, and quit thinking that everything is about empire building, Roman or British.

  3. Jilly Says:

    I too disagree with your colleague, and for many of the reasons you outline. Every era thinks that it is radically disjointed from the past, either for better or worse.

    On the other hand, in order to grasp history beyond dates and events – at the level of intellectual history, historical world-views and so on – it is necessary to both read and think yourself into it quite intensely and with great concentration. For whatever reason, I notice that contemporary undergraduates are unwilling/poorly trained to do this (with honourable exceptions, of course).

    Whether this is the fault of our secondary education system’s emphasis on memorising and regurgitating, or the fault of a wider culture which no longer values long attention spans very much, I don’t know.

  4. Muireann K Says:

    From personal experience I found that a gap year in the developing world helped me trully grasp history in a better way when I returned to university. Although I did not read history persay there were modules on my course that had historical components. Life in a village in rural Uganda was as close as I would get to understanding 1950s Ireland.
    Charcoal irons and powercuts make you find alternative solutions and reprioritize.
    The phrase ‘the past is a foreign country’ suddenly rang true. History and culture. To understand one surely one needs to understand the other.
    Not every graduate gets to take a gap year. Even so with their capacity to soak up and internalise so many facets of popular culture surely they can unlock an understanding of the past. I don’t have the answer of how, but surely there is another way.

  5. History, not historicism eclectically recollecting whatever is opportune, CAN be preserved in proper niches of society, as they evolved in the minds, talks and through the hands of people living and loving them for generations. All this is politically correctly and socially liberally destroyed and taken over by global power mongering. Kill multiculturalism, introduce politeness between cultures as they are and were, inter-culturally.

  6. shg Says:

    When history is taught as a continuum rather than discrete details, it’s relevance becomes clear and it becomes susceptible to understanding. Your colleague is quite correct that history can’t be taught, but only because understanding history must be developed from a common point of reference.

    When it is explained to students that the only way we get from there to here is by understanding how history has developed, they may be far more inclined to appreciate history and desire a better understanding and appreciation of what we went through to arrive at the place they now take for granted. In addition, it’s far more interesting to learn when it’s presented as a continuum rather than dijointed names and dates, never truly connected to their lives.

    • Jilly Says:

      Hmm. I can certainly see your point about the importance of teaching history as a continuum (it also helps I think if you can communicate to students that historical trajectories were not inevitable – so it was never guaranteed that we would get from ‘there’ to ‘here’).

      However, I do have a big problem with the idea that in order for students to engage with an idea or concept (historical or otherwise), it must ‘connect’ to their lives, or even worse, be ‘relevant’ to them.

      The importance of ideas or events is not to be measured according to their direct connection to today’s Irish 19-year-olds. I sometimes have a strong urge to stand in front of students and tell them that it’s NOT all about them…

      • A friend of mine who is a lecturer once began his lecture with the following: What I am covering today will make no reference to soccer, Kylie Minogue, sex, fast cars, computer games, or fashion. But it will be on the exam paper.

      • Vincent Says:

        I do not think it has to connect or be relevant, Jilly. But they sure as hell have to try to do both. Otherwise what is the point of reading about Hitler if all one is doing place him as a Wasp attacking a hive of Honeybees or that the Famine was simply the result of bad summers and a mold. And granted there is an attempt to shift Historiography in the direction, but I hold that the Deeds of Men is the point or the absence of deed.

  7. Jilly Says:

    Vincent, it depends on what you mean by ‘relevant’, I agree. But unfortunately what is usually meant by the concept of ‘making study relevant to students’, and what the students themselves often mean by that, is an immediate, direct, ‘what’s in this for me?’ approach. And that won’t do.

    • Vincent Says:

      Well, I mean doing it for its own sake, with its own Beauty. Not everything has to be nailed to the door of utility. Granted the utility can be a way into a subject but to continue in that vein is very sad indeed.

  8. quixotichistorian Says:

    I am also rather puzzled by your friend’s view. I’ve taught history at primary, secondary and undergraduate levels and have never found lack of imagination (or of ‘relevance’ or equivalent experiences of their own) to be a huge obstacle. Getting the undergrads to read enough so that their interest might lead to halfway reasoned opinions…might be another matter, sometimes, but even that isn’t fair as a universal evaluation.
    Naturally I agree with your post, but how does it relate to the past one in which you concluded that DCU/the university in general doesn’t ‘need the historians’?

    • Fair question! I don’t think DCU, or any particular university, needs historians, but society does, and some university needs to have them… I should defend my friend a little, perhaps – his view was driven by a concern that the understanding of history, in a society that was finding it hard to look back, was at risk. Like many here I don’t really agree with that, but I can understand the concern.

      • Vincent Says:

        Sorry FvP but every society including DCU needs Historians. And it is better to have a few pissing out that the entire crew firing in. Also, there is the real danger you have the Godless College effect.

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