The Value of Studying History

Keith Randell, the founder of the Acress to History series, demonstrates that there is virtually no occasion in life when the study of History is irrelevant.

For a fortnight recently I lay paralysed from the neck downwards in a hospital bed not knowing whether I would live or die. When the doctor told us (my wife and myself) that this was the situation we were not in the least surprised as it was what we had expected. But what did throw us a little was the tone of his voice. His intonation carried the message that if he had been a gambling man he would put his money on me not making it. So we gritted our teeth and set about deciding bow we would fight the battle. The plan was that my wife would stay with me all the time and would look after my body from the outside, checking what was put into it and taken out of it, and why, while I would concentrate on fighting from the inside. I must have been a little delirious, but I considered it reasonable to work on the basis that I was being attacked by many-tentacled brown monsters which were trying to squeeze the life out of me, and that my job was to stop them doing it. For a week I concentrated all my energies on this.

Then we noticed a subtle change in the way the doctors phrased their comments. Behind their words the assumption seemed to be 'when' I would recover rather than 'if. And my days were no longer made up of long sleeps from which I woke in a cold sweat. I even had time to think about some nice things.

The pleasures of the past

Very soon I was spending several hours every day enjoying going over my favourite 'stories' from the History I had studied for most of my life. Where I knew relatively little about the events concerned I merely took pleasure from recounting what I remembered, in the same way as you would with a work of fiction. But where the topic was one l: had studied in depth I could enjoy the added dimensions of thinking about how historians had reached very different conclusions about what had happened and why, and how these differences often reflected the values and attitudes of the period in which the author had been writing.

From time to time I found myself reflecting on how lucky I was to have chosen a subject in which qualifications could be gained largely by learning interesting 'stories' and by making up my own mind about issues such as why things had happened, what had been the importance of certain events, and how significant the roles of various individuals had been. It seemed almost too good to be true.

For a long time I have been aware that, for me, there have been two great benefits gained from studying History. There has been the pleasure of finding out about much of what happened in the past, and there has been the acquisition of patterns of thought which I have used when tackling most practical problems in both my personal and my working life. It is the 'patterns of thought' point which has kept me arguing that there is no more worthwhile subject than History to study.

The hospital ward in which I found myself contained just four beds. The whole time I was there my three companions remained unchanged. They were aged between 75 and 90, were long-term 'stayers', and were most pleasant people. Unfortunately, because my voice was virtually non-existent for a long time, I was unable to communicate with them. This led them to conclude that I was probably brain-damaged as well as unable to move'. Much to our amusement, the 90 year-old described me to his daughter as 'that poor bugger in the corner'.

Thinking historically

As the days passed, I enjoyed playing a type of 'fly on the wall' game. Although I was lying flat and couldn't see what was happening, I could hear everything that went on. I soon realised that the three men had become noticeably institutionalised. One sign of this was that they had virtually ceased to think for themselves about what was happening to them in hospital. There was an assumption that 'they' knew best. However, when it came to problems brought in to them by their visitors they became very involved. I spent many hours identifying the strategies they were employing as they attempted to decide what course of action it would be best to follow. Then, in each case, I tried to work out how they might have acted had they once been students of History.

I was amazed by just how many differences there seemed to be. Most notice- ably, they never quite managed to identify exactly what it was they were attempting to achieve. As a result, they normally ended up either making no decision at all or choosing a course of action which was likely to move them forwards very little. If I had been teaching them History I would have been saying, 'read the question carefully and work out exactly what you are being asked to do. Otherwise, you will end up going round and round in circles and finish up getting nowhere in particular.' It would be one of those classic cases where a student writes all he knows about Charles I merely because he saw his name in the question, instead of discussing how far he was responsible for the outbreak of the Civil War, as he was actually asked to do.

For several days the conversation around one bed was all about a neighbour who, while attempting to manoeuvre his car, had accidentally reversed into my fellow patient's garden wall, partly demolishing it. It seemed that, at the time, the person driving the car had been in a very emotional state having just had an explosive row with his wife. I heard several times about how stupid the man was and how he must not only be made to pay for the damage done but must also be made to undertake all the necessary arrangements with whoever was going to do the work, At no time was any mention made of the thoughts or feelings of the neighbour. It was as if he had suddenly been turned into the enemy.

I tried to imagine what would have been said had the conversation taken place which my family around my bed. I guessed that the annoyance and the determination to make the neighbour pay for the damage would have been the same, but was sure there would have been an additional dimension to the discussion. There would have been thoughts exchanged about what the car driver might have been feeling and, in all probability, there would have been a consideration of how we could get the outcome we wanted while causing our neighbour as little distress as possible. In other words, we would have been at pains to look at the situation from his point of view.

No doubt you are already ahead of me in working out where my thoughts are going. Those who study History for any length of time, and who get into the habit of thinking historically, almost automatically consider both sides of an issue whenever they are forming an opinion or deciding on a course of action. 'On the one hand this, on the other hand that' is a routine part of the mental process. That is why historians are often accused of sitting on the fence, of being too willing to see the opposite point of view. 'What would it look like from here, what would it look like from there?' is a standard way of tackling a question in History. Life would be very straightforward if issues were considered from only one point of view. Praise or blame could be apportioned very simply, presumably from the point of view of the person making the judgement. The wall-bashing neighbour could be thought of as a criminal who deserved to be severely punished for what he had done. Yet most historians would feel very uncomfortable thinking in this way. When I heard somebody say in considerable exasperation, 'The trouble with historians is that they're too reasonable', I knew exactly what was meant. But I regarded the comment as one of praise, rather than of criticism as was intended.

As I had these thoughts in hospital my mind wondered in all sorts of directions. Before long I found myself speculating on the links between historians' reasonableness and the much-vaunted British sense of fair play. I could see that the two were closely linked but I couldn't decide whether the very apparent even- handedness of British historians was part of the national characteristic or was a totally separate phenomenon. However, I was certain that I felt very pleased to be part of a discipline which so obviously respected the value of evidence. The fact that any historian worth his salt reached conclusions based on the evidence found, rather than reaching a conclusion and then searching for evidence to support it, seemed to be one of the strengths that marked doing History out as being a very worthwhile activity. Normally this line of thinking ended with me drifting off to sleep with a sense of general well being.

History and health

Psychologists tell us that good health is often dependent on feeling good about what we do. I'm fairly certain my fellow patients would have argued against this, based on what was happening to them. I could almost hear the cries of 'Rubbish' that would have greeted any such assertion. It would have done no good for me to point out that what was being said was that most people aren't in good health unless they are pleased with how they spend their time, not that good health automatically flows from a satisfaction with how time is spent. They would not have been prepared to hear what I had to say. It was not that they wouldn't have been able to understand me. Rather, it's that they wouldn't have wanted to. Like most people who have not spent time trying to work out the exact meaning of a piece of evidence (something all historians do), they had little time for subtleties of meaning or for those who consider them to be important. It seems a little far-fetched to maintain that the survival of Britain as a healthy democracy depends on there being plenty of historians around, but I can understand the thinking that leads to such an assertion being made.

Now that the time in hospital is fast becoming a distant memory and that my attention is firmly focused on the hurly-burly of daily living, such thoughts seem somewhat unreal. Perhaps, after all, being ill is nature's way of giving us time to remember what really matters!