Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Studying History

An article in the New York Times today summarized a debate surrounding Britain’s history curriculum. Eminent historians, the likes of David Cannadine, David Starkey, Simon Schama, Eric Hobsbawm, Niall Ferguson, are weighing in on how history should be taught to young Britons.  

This article evoked for me a moment to pause and consider why I study history. What I appreciate most about the study of such a finicky thing is that it is constantly changing. How so, you may ask, since historical events that occurred in the past cannot be changed?  What we can change is how we examine the past and what perspective or interpretation is used for that examination.

To quote Mr. Cannadine:

“History is supposed to teach people perspective and proportion polarized around a set of entrenched positions: those who stress the importance of historical knowledge — facts — over historical skills, those who want a narrative of national greatness versus a warts-and-all portrait of the past, and those who want to focus on the country you’re in rather than our relationship with the broader world.”

The study of history needs to include the facts, the recitation of the kings and queens of England or the dates of wars, but it can, and in my opinion should, strive beyond the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, and ‘where’ to the ‘why’ and the ‘how’. It is in delving into the ‘whys’ and the ‘hows’ that moves the study of history beyond just the dates of a monarch or a war to considering the deeper meaning of the subject. It is in that quest for meaning that we diverge in how to study history because it means something different for each person.

Each time I sit down to examine a subject, it will be a different experience than the time before. I am approaching the topic in a different time and space and therefore I bring a different perspective to examining the topic in that moment. There is no true way to uncover the mystery of the past. There is no singular truth but many truths to discover. 


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