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All Was Not Feigned

The struggle between certainty and doubt is at the heart of history, says Mathew Lyons. It should be relished for what it reveals about a past where facts are sometimes in short supply.

Mythical voyage: Brutus sets sail for Britain, a 15th-century illustration from Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'History of the Kings of Britain'. Bridgeman/Bibliotheque Nationale ParisIn May Brighton College, an independent fee-paying school, announced its intention to make the study of history compulsory for all pupils through to 18. Whatever one’s view of the decision, the fact that it was considered unusual and innovative enough to make the national newspapers should give us – and anyone interested in the practice and pleasures of history – pause for thought.

Should it not be obvious why the past is worth studying all the way through school? And, if it is not obvious, do we make the case for our subject’s virtues with sufficient force? What, indeed, are its virtues?

For me history isn’t really about the past. It is about how we engage with the past, which isn’t quite the same thing. That is what makes it such an excellent educational tool: to read history is to be constantly aware of the struggle between certainty and doubt. Indeed ‘bad’ history – poor research, weak methodology, clumsy arguments and so on – can be just as instructive and illuminating as its counterpart, precisely because it draws attention to the processes and techniques that all historians use.

All history is selective. But where, then, is its truth? One way to answer that question is to consider the areas in which history is most unlike itself, the margins of the discipline where it clearly shades into other traditions of thought, where facts are at best unstable and often largely absent.

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