Francis Bacon once said, “Histories make one wise.” The writing of History goes back to the Sumerians around 3500BC. Herodotus of Halicarnassus is often given the epithet of the father of History and he wrote his histories between the 450s and 420s BC. Thucydides, a contemporary of Herodotus, writing his History of the Peloponnesian War, is sometimes credited with the first approach to the writing of history as an opinion based on sources and evidence. The very word history comes from the Greek ιστορια, or historia, meaning knowledge from enquiry or to judge. Many will remember the study of History at school as learning a list of facts, kings and queens and endless repeats of the Tudors and Henry VIII. It is a shame that so many GCSE and A level topics focus on the Twentieth century. It seems that earlier periods have been forgotten. So why has History been studied for so long and why is it an essential subject for every pupil and person?
Firstly it is the best and most interesting story ever told. It’s real. It may not end as we would like; there are parts we would want to forget. There are stories to inspire, to terrify, to love, to make us cry, to make us think and to make us laugh. It is a fascinating and original tale of humans and of the earth. Pupils love the element of story and this can often be forgotten by educationalists who strive for a purely skills based subject in the age of Google. Why do we need to know facts when we have the internet to tell us everything? Simply because it is real life and otherwise pupils would not find it out for themselves or be able to put it into context or perspective. History is not all about factual knowledge but what you do with that knowledge and an understanding of that knowledge. It does make you a more rounded individual if you have perspective and an appreciation of the world around you. History broadens the mind. The more you know the more you want to find out and the more you start to realise that the world is a complex place. Very rarely are issues black and white, whatever politicians or the press would like to tell us. To have the ability to see two or more points of view gives you balance and leads to better decision-making. The modern way wants to polarise ideas and thoughts. Thinking like an historian enables you to see past this and find a more thoughtful way forward.
As well as this History tells you who you are, where you came from and an understanding of your own story. It gives you the background to your ancestors and an appreciation of how you have got to where you are. We are not born in isolation nor can we live in it. We are a product of our background, our environment and social community. An understanding of shared histories bring communities closer by having and recognising a shared heritage, culture and traditions, giving people a greater sense of belonging and thus sense of responsibility to each other. It is precisely when people do not feel they belong or have any responsibility to themselves or others that social problems arise.
Secondly, an understanding of History gives you a tolerance of others and their opinions. It enables you to understand the cultures and beliefs of people different to you. By understanding their background and history you recognise the reasons why people act in the way they do. Percy Shelley said, “The more we study the more we discover our ignorance”. This idea that others may just have a point can help people become more tolerant to each other and reduce conflict the world over. “Education is the most powerful weapon with which to change the world,” said Nelson Mandela. He is not wrong. Too many times History repeats itself. Why? Because humankind does not understand its own story well enough. Therefore it needs to be told more regularly, more clearly and to a wider audience. George Santayana, the Italian philosopher, poet, novelist and essayist simply says: “Those who do not know history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them.”
History also equips students and adults with skills that are necessary both in personal and working lives. Being able to understand the reliability of information and appreciate the difference between facts and opinions would lead to far fewer misunderstandings. Not jumping to conclusions but considering the worth of what you have heard would bring fewer conflicts and break downs in relationships. History teaches you to reflect on the provenance of sources and their usefulness. Why has that been written or said? Who said it? Where did they get their information? When was that written? What does this really say? If we stopped and thought more about questions such as these we would not jump to conclusions so readily, take sides so quickly and resort to knee jerk reactions.
Finding out information from reliable sources and corroborating that information are also skills an historian needs. With internet search engines, as mentioned earlier, it is very easy to find out what we need to know. Does this make us less critical of the information we have? Yes. The ability to use a variety of source material, to pull that together and organise it produces clearer, more accurate and reasoned accounts.
The skill of presentation is also vital in the workplace. The ability to get your point of view across is necessary in most environments. Formulating an argument and being able to communicate this both verbally and in written form with colleagues or clients is vital to the success of your business, professional standing and future. History is about marshalling facts to support and present your ideas. Organising material, in a way that others will not only understand but also take an interest in, is fundamental to the subject.
The ability to analyse data, make inferences and deductions and draw conclusions are skills employers are looking for. It is one thing to find out the information it is quite another to know how to use it. Extrapolating information gets beyond the veneer of raw data and starts to unlock the reasons, causes and motives behind it. Only then can we start to understand. Statistics have been likened to half a lamppost. It is useful to lean on but it does not shed any light on where you want to go. That is why the ability to infer thoughtfully and in a reasoned way is helpful.
Finally it is very difficult to fix something and put it right if you have no idea of why it needs fixing or is broken in the first place. You need to have an understanding of its history and its context. If a patient went to see a doctor with a complaint the doctor in question would want to know the cause of the problem and the history of that patient. He/she would not just provide medication without an inspection, or so you would hope. Therefore before a decision is made on how to act one needs to know what has happened to get to this point, what has been tried before and what the different options are along with the consequences this would have. Take the Irish unification problem for example. No politician worth their salt would embark on a course of action without the knowledge of 800 years worth of history. A school would not discipline pupils over an issue without due regard for what had gone on beforehand.
There are many other reasons why we study History not mentioned here. But what can History give us? The excitement of a story well told. A story, told by many that weaves through time, like a migrating bird being buffeted by the winds, impinging on every one of us whether we like it or not. A calmer, more reasoned, better presented way of decision-making. Emotion will always play its part but a better understanding and context of the issues involved, a tolerance of the points of view of others and an ability to see different paths leads to a wisdom that otherwise simply would not be there. That is where Francis Bacon started us off.
By Robert Lloyd-Williams, Head of History, Monkton Combe Prep