Why History Matters

Regular readers of this blog (and I am always amazed that there are so many of you) will know that I frequently drone on about what I have been up to and that most of it usually relates to history, with the occasional travelogue thrown in. Sometimes, and today is one of those days, I feel like writing something vaguely more meaningful. Yesterday, a popular TV programme revealed that a third of those questioned did not know who was on the British throne in 1859, more worryingly, a similar number couldn’t name the monarch in 1979! Admittedly the question was not straightforwardly phrased but even so…… Does this matter? Well, at the most basic level maybe not but it is symptomatic of our frenetic clawing towards the future and lust for something new, at the expense of our heritage. History is continually being squeezed from the school curriculum and what is taught is often disjointed and lacking in context. Yes there really is a whole load of history between the Tudors and the Victorians, of which many school children are blissfully unaware, even supposing they have grasped that the Tudors come first! And yes, history does extend beyond the twentieth century political history, so beloved of the examination syllabus.

I have just listened to the news featuring an eighteen year old American scientist who has discovered a diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer. His mantra was, ‘Science is using your curiosity to change the world.’ Undoubtedly this is true in his case and he deserves every credit. When I explain what I study, I often feel that others think it is self-indulgent and that it does not contribute to the greater good. I am not suggesting history is more important than medical research but I maintain that, in some ways, it is as important. More and more studies are suggesting that an understanding of the past is crucial to our well-being in the present. American research, by Dr Marshall Duke, investigating childrens resiliency and ability to deal with stress, discovered that children who knew more about their families:-

  • Tended to do better than other children when they faced challenges.
  • Proved to be more resilient and able to moderate the effects of stress.
  • Had a stronger sense of control over their lives.
  • Had higher self-esteem.
  • Believed that their family functioned successfully.
  • Felt that they belonged to something larger than themselves.

Recent studies by The Heritage Lottery Fund found that there are positive benefits to an awareness of heritage that relate to quality of life, community cohesion and creating better places to live. Can historians use their curiosity to change the world? I am an idealist, if we each change our little bit of the world, perhaps they can.

History is about using the past to inform the present and the future. It can hone analytical skills and teach people to question but it can also engender a sense of belonging, to a family or a to community. An awareness of a shared past creates unity in the present. You may have spotted the history based quotes at the head and foot of most of the pages on my website. In the dim and distant past (well nine years ago), when I had a history classroom, most of these were depicted in coloured speech bubbles around the wall. Perhaps the most telling of these is George Santayana’s on the home page ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfil it’. Sadly many are not learning from the past and many never will but I for one have the vision to think we could try and encourage people not to repeat so many past mistakes.

So yes, it matters but how do we spread the word? As my passion (far to far gone to call this merely a hobby) and what passes for my job overlap, I either work 150 hours a week, or I do nothing but enjoy myself! We can introduce others to history in a more moderate way. A bit like faith, we can take history out with us and introduce it to those with whom we come into contact. Not, I hasten to add, in a pushy overbearing way (that doesn’t work for religion either!) but gently, without people even realising that what they are doing is engaging in history. I have just written about this for the British Association for Local History’s newsletter. This blog post is already long enough, so I won’t repeat it all here now but there are many inventive ways in which this can be done; if you watch this space I may be inspired to feature some here. As many of you know, I am particularly focussed on engaging young people with history and heritage. Some of my descendants are on their way to visit (excited face) so I have the opportunity to put this into practice. Yes, I am talking about a fifteen month old and yes it is possible. I will show you the evidence next week.

I know you will say ‘I don’t have the time’ or ‘My friends and neighbours don’t have the time’. Originally this post was entitled ‘Making Time for History and why this Matters’ but I have spent so long on why it matters that I haven’t made time to address how to make time in our busy lives. Another day, another blog post – I promise.

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3 comments on “Why History Matters

  1. […] Why History Matters – Knowing your family makes young people more resilient to stress. Do you try to engage young people with history? […]

  2. Helen says:

    Power to you. I once said,having thought then and actually still think to a lesser degree having the French Revolution for A level, that I thought history was pointless. This was said to a history graduate and I blush every time I think of it. I think your plan of catching them young and linking history to where we live and our families is so much more relevant. I now have a cunning plan for my grandson this half term and can see him glaze over already, but he will enjoy it. My granddaughter has witches for the second year of her A levels, bring it on.

    • Good luck with the cunning plan – let me know if it works. I have some witches information if it might be of any use. I am talking on engaging young people with history in Canada later in the year so am looking for additional good ideas to share.

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