Not a historian

October 15, 2015

I made a very deliberate choice at 16. I chose to change one of my A level courses from History to English Literature; the consequences have been with me ever since. I don’t regret the choice at all; my sixteen year-old self told me that I could always read history books anyway. And since then, I have.

So I have pursued my own particular interests in history, quite eclectic and I’m unsure whether anyone else shares them. History of Poland (my ancestry), history of Eastern Europe and the Second World War (my origins). History of religion (brought up religious, one never seems to leave it behind). And the question of experts and expertise often rears its head: one of the things I can’t always be sure of is how reliable a particular writer is, what axes s/he has to grind, that might be getting in the way of a clear understanding and judgement. Is X a ‘real’ historian, or just a populariser for the masses?

Expertise is a tricky thing; I once read that sometime in the seventeenth century there was so much knowledge being discovered and published that it was no longer possible for any one educated person to keep up with it all. Isidore of Seville was lucky: he lived a thousand years earlier. No-one can now be up-to-date in the entirety of any field of knowledge or learning. At school, students used to regard me as an expert on literature. True, I had studied, and acquired degrees, but what they didn’t know, unless they dared to ask, was where my gaps were – the periods I hadn’t studied, the lectures I’d skived, the authors I’d never read because I found them too dull… they knew I was well up in Shakespeare and some of his contemporaries, Jane Austen, twentieth century literature from all sorts of odd places…

It was also empowering to students to demonstrate to them that there were subjects in which they were also experts, especially compared with me, and I remember the dawning of the awareness, as I drew to the end of my time at school, that there were some areas where I now knew (almost) as much as my teachers, and clearly after a few more years of study, I had surpassed them. I used to remind my best students that they would also be in that position one day, and how empowering that would be.

History I find fascinating, partly because it connects me with the rest of the human race and our collective past, which I can never be part of, though it has surely shaped and influenced me, and also because it reminds me that there is a future which I will never know about or be part of. The human story is a fascinating one, and I waver constantly between marvelling at our achievements as a species and being overwhelmed by our apparent collective stupidity. We can create stunning works of art and music: Bach’s cantatas still leave me speechless, and I can never forget the day over forty years ago when I was fortunate enough to be taken to a cave in the South of France where I saw real cave paintings from thirty thousand years ago… And then, we invent horrendous devices of torture and mass destruction and still fondly imagine that war and greed are capable of solving the world’s problems, leading us to a better future.

It has been fascinating, over the course of a lifetime, to see how research in certain areas of history seems to have changed and developed our understanding of various periods – thinking particularly of new material coming to light about Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, for instance. Equally, though, I have noticed perspectives changing, themes and topics moving up and down an agenda according to what suits research interests and also the interests of today’s politicians: history is clearly not a neutral discipline! But, I’m not so sure I’d necessarily make the same decision if I could rewind to my sixteen year-old self…

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