“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it” or words to that effect were uttered by Winston Churchill in regards to his legacy. Whether you take this to mean he was a pompous man who was going to literally write history to be in his favour, or the words of a man who was intending to do great things so that future historians had no choice but to write positively about him, it raises interesting questions today about our own perceptions of the past.
Winston Churchill in 1941, WikiCommons.
Recently, an article was posted on The Conversation: “Don’t despair if your teen wants to major in history instead of science”. A valiant article, it lists many positive outcomes to a young adult choosing to study history at college or university: the ability to interpret how we got to where we are today; you will find a job afterwards; it gives great skills for analysing and judging sources, important in a Fake News world; and how today, history is causing us to reconsider legacies, such as confederate statues or memorials to slave owners. All of these are fantastic reasons not to be ignored, and indeed some were ones I used myself to convince sceptical relatives who thought I should go into more fiscally rewarding fields such as business or law.
But the more I immerse myself into the history community – from this blog, to writing my first book, to engaging in history witter – and the more I see arguments that history is useful so we don’t “repeat the past” or because it gives you transferable skills to go into other industries, the more I feel like historians need to reassess their rallying call.
The Colosseum in Rome, author’s own photo.
If we look to the past, history has long been raised upon a pedestal. Many of our earliest writings were histories, from monks writing chronicles and annals recording what was happening for future generations, to huge histories composed for great rulers so their legacy could be remembered. The earliest universities looked to the past, transcribing and translating re-discovered works of the Greeks and Romans and re-learning many lost arts, sciences and philosophies as a result. It is clear that for centuries, historians were some of the most important people in society.
Yet today, universities across the globe are losing funding for history faculties. The amount of staff are dropping, many who stay are striking due to poor contracts, and as a result there is less chance – and desire – for students to take it up as a course. The arts as a whole are beginning to be looked down upon, with the sciences viewed as the only legitimate discipline.
So why should we encourage the study of history in itself, setting aside arguments of transferable skills. Why history?
A Mayan calendar, Museo Nacional de Antropologia.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, answer is that it is interesting. With crippling debt placed upon those who choose to go to University in countries like the UK and US, students are often pressured to make a justification as to why they pick a certain subject, often with the expectation that it should link to their future career and increased earnings. But is it so bad to choose to study a subject simply because it fascinates you and you want to learn all you can? This may be a luxury not all can afford, but I think it should be a wider consideration than it is now.
I am one of the lucky few who used my history degree for my career, but even if after walking out of the graduation hall I never had anything to do with the subject again, I know I still would have chosen to study it. My knowledge of my country’s history was broadened so much further than the limited topics parroted out at school (Tudors, the World Wars, ancient Rome/Egypt/Greece). I learnt about the wider world – post-slavery in the Caribbean, honour and shame in medieval Japan – and I learnt new skills to interpret the world around me, and I was encouraged to explore more than I ever would have previously. In our world, we should be encouraging a love and zeal for learning simply because it is interesting, fun, makes us think – and not just will we use it later in life.
Perhaps more importantly, history is all around us. It is inescapable. The same is true for all arts subjects. Although many a parent has been concerned when their children say they want to “be in a band”, very few actually argue against the worth of music. It is in films, tv shows, adverts, concert halls, our living rooms. But often the pervasiveness of history is not as widely recognised. When people think history, they think museums, school, and – often – boring. But in reality history has seeped into the lifeblood of our countries. Even someone who may claim to have no interest in history constantly engages with it in one form or another.
The Long Room Interior, Trinity College Dublin. WikiCommons.
Of course, you have your museums and art galleries. More and more archives are becoming friendlier to the public who are realising their values in more personal histories of their families or their homes. Many people watch historical dramas on film or tv, and with the advent of Netflix these are becoming more widespread and are covering wider topic areas, and so are starting to lose their reputation of being reserved for a certain audience. Shows like The Crown have taken the world by storm, and the tremendous success of The Favourite shows there is a growing hunger for new, original historical productions that vie away from the usual tried and tested subjects (I’m looking at you, Tudors and Victorian novels). Even shows like Watchmen, the HBO superhero drama, surprised millions of viewers when its first episode opened with the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, an event most had never heard of.
Even venturing into the more factually accurate documentaries you would be hard pressed to find someone who has never watched a single one. In particular, war documentaries are of course more popular as Remembrance Day approaches. Which neatly brings me on to another point – our streets are littered with monuments and statues commemorating people and events. There are palaces and historic manor houses and, if you live in the UK, it feels that you can barely walk down the street without seeing a house that’s at least several hundred years old.
Historical literature is a field of continuing popularity. Even beyond fiction books, the growing number of popular historians has really opened up the field to ordinary members of the public. If I had a penny for every person aged 50+ who has told me “I hated history at school but now that I’m older I love it” then I would be a very rich person.
The movie poster for The Favourite which told the story of the lesser-known British Queen Anne.
So, most people engage with history at one level or another, and most enjoy at least one format of consuming history. Without bringing up contentious political issues, it is difficult to deny that many countries in the West are currently experiencing key, historic turning points in their history. From Brexit to the impeachment of a President of the United States, we are acutely aware that everything we are living through is going to be recorded and analysed for generations to come. But even within these events, history is being used to shape our world today.
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In the Supreme Court ruling last September questioning whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advice to Queen Elizabeth II to prorogue Parliament was lawful, historic law was quoted:
“The 17th century was a period of turmoil over the relationship between the Stuart kings and Parliament, which culminated in civil war. That political controversy did not deter the courts from holding, in the Case of Proclamations (1611) 12 Co Rep 74, that an attempt to alter the law of the land by the use of the Crown’s prerogative powers was unlawful. The court concluded at p 76 that “the King hath no prerogative, but that which the law of the land allows him”, indicating that the limits of prerogative powers were set by law and were determined by the courts. The later 18th century was another troubled period in our political history, when the Government was greatly concerned about seditious publications. That did not deter the courts from holding, in Entick v Carrington (1765) 19 State Tr 1029; 2 Wils KB 275, that the Secretary of State could not order searches of private property without authority conferred by an Act of Parliament or the common law.”
In further Brexit-related historical precedent, it was reported just last month that a charter of King Charles II dating to 1666 granting 50 fishermen from Bruges access to British waters “for eternity” as thanks for giving him refuge during the Interregnum could possibly still be legally enforceable, and thus scupper plans to gain sovereignty over UK waters.
The Charter of Charles II which could be enforced today. WikiCommons.
Historians, then, have been successful in bringing history into every aspect of life. So how do we make sure that people recognise it, and stop looking down upon its study? I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to that, other than to implore anyone who reads this to reconsider the impact of history on their lives, and encourage others to stop judging those who want to immerse themselves more. Every day that passes has us making history in one form or another, and we can learn so much more about our lives today through it. Let’s enjoy it.
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