History, understanding and context

Some years ago a Professor of History at an English university suggested to me in a conversation that it had become increasingly difficult to teach history to today’s generation of students because they had, mostly, no understanding of two central experiences: of religion, and of rural life. Anything from before the Industrial Revolution occurred at a time when people’s lives were shaped by completely different influences and imperatives from those that would resonate today. So how can this be properly understood by people now whose formative influences have been secular, industrial and urban?

As L.P. Hartley suggested, the past is a foreign country. But then again, it isn’t. The 20th century began and ended in the Balkans, and right now we still find ourselves grappling with the implications of events as far back as the Crusades. We cannot, in short, be xenophobic regarding the past, because that foreign country has a huge effect on us now.

History drives crucial problems and dilemmas today: the Irish border, antisemitism, Palestine, Zimbabwe, the relationships between various countries in the Persian Gulf, Rwanda and Burundi, Taiwan. History is not just a story, but a narrative of influences and insights that continue to shape actions today – which we will not understand if we don’t understand or wilfully ignore history. It is equally dangerous to imagine, as some do, a history that never actually occurred, or didn’t occur in the way it is now presented – something that has helped to make Brexit so dangerously combustible.

As a society, we need to reconnect with history, understood not as an account of the glorious things done by people we identify with and the dastardly things committed by everyone else: but as the totality of our global heritage, so that we can live with the right level of consciousness and do things that reflect a better understanding of this world of ours.

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One Comment on “History, understanding and context”

  1. Vince Says:

    There are a number of different types of history (in the official sense) one may encounter and these tend to profoundly adjust ones thinking.
    History for primary school tend to the heroic, Zena Warrior Princess type of thing albeit for the Celtic tribes. The Irish and Scot- same shop different shelf- have Finn and his Followers. But it is more than likely these sagas crossed into northern Europe too. History at second level shifts a bit to latterday Finn’s in the form of the nation forming Greats like Peter the Great and the German chick moved to Russia as a breeder who shocked everyone and became Catherine the Great. Guess what teens grab from Catherine. Fred for Prussia three of them really. Then Bismark. And so on for France Italy the UK and America.
    The thing is as a teen you are profoundly discouraged from asking trenchant questions. This tends to arrive at uni level, but only in History courses.
    Here’s one. In Ireland we get the pre 1000AD history that lionises the Celtic. That elevates the Arts and letters in a way hard to replicate. But then at about 1170 all changes the Native Irish vanish and it become a record of the Norman lords, Burke, Butler and FitzGerald. And this still remains the means of teaching the History of Ireland to all teens.
    Why does the lack of a Celtic presence matter. We matter because we are a huge proportion of the population.

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