Past and Present: Why studying History tells us who we really are

In 2017 the historian Sir David Cannadine, in his capacity as president of the British Academy, made a strong and very welcome defence of the study of his subject, pointing out that the academic investigation of the past is necessary because it teaches the crucial ability to ‘appraise evidence critically, persuade, negotiate and unravel complexity’.

Sir David Cannadine

It was a response to those who like to claim that academic history is in ‘crisis’ and lacks relevance in the 21st century, and also to those who like to disparage experts (such as the politician Michael Gove, who infamously said in 2016 that people had had enough of ‘experts’). Cannadine (pictured) remains a keen defender of history and historical inquiry.

It remains important that we regularly remind ourselves of the importance of history and, as scholars, continually explain our purpose and defend our profession. I was therefore especially interested in a recent article by the journalist Jenni Russell, who has penned a very welcome and thoughtful article on the importance of studying history, which is (as she put it) the ‘topic that encompasses every human and pre-human experience that ever was’.

Writing in the Times newspaper on November 7th, 2019, Russell pointed out that history ‘reveals all human nature, our capacity for cruelty and cooperation, love and hatred, and the extraordinary range of the societies in which we have lived and died, from hunting bands to empires, dictatorships to democracies’.

Jenni Russell

She also observed that history ‘teaches us that all power wanes, every decision has unintended consequences and that no society recognises its fatal flaws until it’s too late’. Although Russell (pictured) had some hard-hitting things to say about how school history in the UK has become too bound up with rote-learning and, at the professional level, too ‘jargon-ridden’, nevertheless she made a strong case for history and for properly understanding the past, ‘particularly when Britain is riven by the question of who we are, who we were and who we want to be’.

It is gratifying that the study of history is being discussed again in the media. More of this is needed. As with many other subjects in the humanities, the subject appears to be under attack in the UK’s HE sector at the moment. Indeed, it may even disappear completely from some of the New Universities, which (as Russell noted) are now prioritising STEM subjects, creative arts and business studies. History is in danger of becoming the victim of short-sighted prejudices held by those who place all their faith in the ‘market’, or those who are motivated by the vacuous simplicities of post-modernism and post-structuralism, which claim that the study of the past is a fool’s errand and that everything can be reduced to mere ‘narrative’ in this ‘post-truth’ age.

Past present and future signpost

It is especially important that we hold on to a subject that can arguably help us navigate our way through an age where ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ have become mainstream, and where populist attacks on ‘experts’ have become the norm.

As we face Brexit, probably one of the most important changes to our country since the Second World War, a knowledge of the past in order to more fully comprehend the present becomes even more important. Many myths have been spun about the past and Britain’s national identity, with politicians only too happy to exploit and ‘weaponise’ nostalgia and memory in a highly selective and often nakedly ideological way.

History can train and equip the individual with a skills-set that enables one to be a critically engaged citizen, sceptical towards ideology and falsehood – skills now even more valuable in a digital age when the internet is King and social media rules. The ability to discern fact from fiction, and to manage and appraise huge varieties of data during a time of turmoil and change, will be essential tools in coming years.

Russell’s article brought some interesting reactions in the letters pages of the Times a few days later. The author and historian Tom Holland, for example, agreed with Russell that history is the one subject that every child should study, and also shared her concern about the future of history. Similarly, Professor Hamish Scott, a Fellow of the British Academy, also stated that Russell is ‘absolutely correct’ to extol the many benefits of studying history; however, he said that her description of academic history as ‘jargon-ridden’ was too sweeping.

Sir Anthony Seldon, also offering his perspective on the points raised by Russell, argued that ignorance of history, ‘not least by politicians in this election campaign, spreads error and false truth’. He added: ‘Without history, we are ignorant nobodies, stumbling forward blindly to nowhere’. To my mind, that last comment is a warning that says so much.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

This entry was posted in British history, History skills, Media history, Public History, Research, Study Skills, Teaching, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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