Does history still matter? For me the obvious answer is yes but over the course of 2014 I’m beginning to worry that in today’s increasingly online world it doesn’t. Now I’m going to try and not make sweepingly general statements as I know a lot of you lovely readers are from all over the world (which by the way, is awesome) so I’ll be sticking to the UK and, unfortunately some American examples of pop culture.
There was once a time that studying a topic, being passionate about an academic subject was something to be admired, this respect to intellectualism dates back to the Classical Period where you had for example Socrates Cicero, Livy and Heroditus (then are more but that’s another day) then fast forward to the medieval period and you’ve for Adelard of Bath, a monumentally important astrologer and mathematician responsible for translating ground-breaking Arabic science into Latin for the Western World. Ok so those three examples are a little obscure but the list goes on:
John of Malmesbury a C12 chronicler who has provided historians with numerous accounts of the life of Henry II
Geoffrey of Monmouth author of Historia Regum Britanniae, the history of kings which every English and History undergrad will at some point read
Margary Kempe: A medieval historian and writer
Thomas More: Chancellor to Henry VIII and author of the ground-breaking Utopia
Machiavelli: The Italian writer cum politician who wrote The Prince and The History of Florence
Voltaire: A French Enlightenment writer, philosopher and revolutionary, who advocated freedom of religion, expression and the separation of Church and State in a Catholic France
David Hume: A pioneer of the Scottish Enlightenment Movement who is famed for his work with empiricism and scepticism.
Samuel Johnson: C19 author of the dictionary
Jeremy Bentham:The founder of modern utilitarianism, the philosophy that the greater number is the greatest good…which is a little flawed
Kant: A pioneer of the Enlightenment movement, a philosopher of religion and science
Edmund Burke: One of the key creators of the C18-19 Gothic movement famed for his work on literary criticism on ‘The Sublime’
Mary Wollenscraft: A female critic and poet who, in her day rivaled Wordsworth and Coleridge in her poetic verse
There are HUGE numbers of people I’ve missed out and I’ve not even touched the vast contribution of the Middle East and Asian cultures to history, mainly because I’m wholly (and ashamedly) ignorant when it comes to that area of history apart from in relation to the Western World…I’m not proud of that, I just wouldn’t want to make glaring errors or generalisations. The folks above are usually covered at university or, if you’re in the advanced A Level classes at school and this is a great shame, an even greater shame is the lack of female influence here but I’m putting that down to the incredibly oppressive patriarchal world us gals have suffered. We’re making up for that now with feminist authors and historians: Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Simone de Beauvoir, Virgina Wolfe, Julia Fox, Helen Castor, Alison Weir, Lucy Worsley and a great many more…seriously check these ladies out! I mean it’s a little late in the game for women but quite frankly feminism is still finding its feet. ANYWAY back to the topic at hand…the rise and decline of history.
As I mentioned previously, academia and philosophy was once something to be admired and I’m not saying that this is equals a perfectly wonderful amazing world because it doesn’t. Most of these chroniclers, well the ones after 1400 and something came from privileged backgrounds and those before could read and write BECAUSE they were in the Church. So nowadays, when everybody is expected to be able to string a sentence together, you’d think that we’d embrace this right more. Sadly, in my opinion cultural interests have shifted, because now everybody can read and write it’s not seen as something admirable, it’s just something everyone can do. I grew up in a relatively middle class home and went to a decent state school that was academically driven but even then, an interest in anything school related was deemed as ‘uncool’ anyone who *gasp* enjoyed a lesson was social a pariah. I think this is because history and an avid interest in it, is still associated with an elite upper class that well…most people in the UK don’t like. I mean who can blame the general public, when you have asshats like London Mayor Boris Johnson quoting Classical historians while London is caught up in riots? Hate the system guys, don’t hate on history.
This is where the problem for me lies: at most schools the national curriculum covers: The Normal Conquest, bits of The Tudors (Lizzie and Hendog 8), if you’re lucky the French Revolution, George IV (sometimes), Victorian and the WWI WWII. At GCSE (the exams you do at 16) if you chose to study history (which many don’t it’s a declining subject) you’ll redo the world wars and spend a huge amount of time studying Russian History and the Cold War which you’ll then do again if you chose to do A Levels (the exams that get you to university). It’s great that we here learn about the World Wars and also the Cold War BUT, BUT, BUT there is so much more to learn about and a vast amount of it directly affects how the world works now.
They say history repeats itself and that if we don’t study it now we’re doomed to relive it…that’s what we’re doing over and over. For example the 1721 South Sea Bubble, an economic disaster that started mass uprisings, crippled the economy and made room for Britain’s first Prime Minister, is completely forgotten, yet entirely recognisable in the awful recession that gripped Britain in 2007. The SSB is an early example of mass hysteria and extreme overestimation in the stock market. The South Sea company were namely in the slave trade and, when this regrettable source of income was at an economic height, British people from the lowest of the low right up to the royal family invested crazy amounts of money in the company. Then, like all financial horror stories, the worth of the company collapsed bankrupting just about everyone…rather conveniently politician Robert Walpole (later PM) sold his shares for a vast sum of money and then went about ‘fixing’ the nation’s problems. Suspicious right, suspicious or not the SSB has repeated itself twice in the 1920s and in the early 2000s when the world overspent and lived to excess before losing everything. In the 1920s it was the boom and bust in American in the 2000s with the British recession it was a horrible mix of living it up in 1990s and a banking crisis. What I’m driving at is the idea that these crises, uprisings and national depressions seem to repeat themselves every few years…I mean lets go even further back to the baron’s revolt of the 1170s over tax reforms, the poll tax/peasants’ revolt against Richard II over crazy war tax and economic disaster, these problems do not go away, the culprits just change…sort of. I’m not saying that by meticulously studying the early Georgian period and looking in detail at the economic trends of the time is what we should all do, I’m saying that surely it’s worth knowing about.
Another example and one that saddens me a little more is earlier when our beloved wise tolerated Prime Minister David Cameron referenced Magna Carta in a speech and about 90% of the general public had no clue what it was. As a medievalist I was-to quote Marge Simpson-“shocked and terrified” and it wasn’t until my mother bought me back down to earth by telling me “why would they?” that I realised how shunted history is. It’s not cool to know about a document that changed the shape of the political landscape just as it’s not cool to know anything about Common Law established by Henry II and still in parts, practised today. Why bother with things that happedn 800 years ago before people even wrote in English? We should bother because it’s us, it’s a huge part of our lives in Britain and it’s something we wilfully ignore in favour of complaining endlessly about how shit the world is now. People have always hated politicians, taxes have always been too high, but people haven’t always hated history.
Now, anyone who takes an interest in the academic world is mocked, we have shows like the hateful Big Bang Theory, which essentially is a ‘let’s point and laugh at the lame people who like science jokes LOL’. We idolise stupid people who are famous for being famous, rather than the people who actually make a difference. The amazing historian Mary Beard received death threats over twitter for being too ugly to be on TV (eurgh) while the Kardashians (sorry to use them as an example again) are apparently more influential than Malala Yousafzai. People who take an interest in history are presented as batshit crazy-I present you Philippa Langely-the kind of socially awkward buffoons who have nothing better to do than obsess over dead people. That isn’t true, it’s not even close to being true. Yes I know historians and yes they’re passionate about their subject…but is that all they talk about? HELL NO! I recently had a conversation with a Pirate Historian (the best kind) about Buffy, my point here is that those who study history are crazy elitists, or crusty academics who look down on people who don’t know EVERYTHING EVER: they’re awesome people who happen to work in history.
So in conclusion, the state of affairs seems pretty dire but it’s never too late to learn new things. I urge you to go out and buy your kids, your cousins, nieces and nephews, a history book because learning about the past is the best way to prepare for the future.