What Henry Ford actually said was “History is more or less bunk” and it turned out that he was really referring to the way, at the time, history was taught with, he believed, an over emphasis on politics and key people.
Ford went on to found the Greenfield Village historical centre just outside Detroit celebrating more the ‘way of life’ of people from different times and different countries rather than ‘key events’, although it does include replicas of The Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop and Edison’s laboratory.
One can’t help thinking that Ford was probably quite right, certainly if he was speaking about how history was. and to a large extent it seems still is, taught in schools in particular.
When movies based on historical events are released, many ‘millennials’ and even some older people often assume that they are a work of fiction, or when told they were based on real events have no idea what it was all about.
There is a certain arrogance among those ‘younger’ people who don’t consider that anything of importance happened before ‘them’, and as far as they are concerned ‘the past’ and all its artefacts might as well be discarded and replaced with some new ‘bright shiny object’ probably produced on a 3D printer!
But many people are beginning to take a rather disturbing ‘Orwellian’ view of history and what has happened in the past.
They want to remove memorials to people who maybe hundreds of years ago didn’t conform to modern day cultural, moral, ethical or political standards – and for all sorts of spurious reasons, often based on ’bad history’ or propaganda.
This is leading to the ‘dark side’ of not understanding what history is all about and judging the past against the standards of the present, which is of course completely the wrong way around.
You and I should judge the present against the standards of the past
And this applies to ourselves individually as well.
To get a true picture we don’t compare ourselves against others, we compare ourselves against our previous selves.
Do the same with the nation, the continent, the world – then and only then do we get a true picture of where we are now, as an individual, a community, a nation and so on.
If things happened in the past that we don’t like, there’s no sense in tearing down statues and destroying the records – that won’t make what happened go away.
And you and I should remember that if all those things that we might not like or approve of had not happened then we wouldn’t be who we are today and we wouldn’t be where we are today.
As any Star Trek aficionado knows, disobeying the Temporal Prime Directive or going back in time and ‘interfering’ (even for good reasons) was the worst thing that could happen, and when it did from time to time it seemed that William Shatner or Sir Patrick Stewart was always on hand to sort it out and put everything back as it should be again.
Fortunately, we can’t travel back in time, but if we could, you can be sure that someone would go back, and for all the right reasons in their mind, change something, without any idea of what the consequences might be.
What happened in the past – history – is important, but the thing is, we don’t necessarily know what happened.
You see, “History is written by the victors” – a quote often attributed to Churchill but it seems Orwell said it before that and borrowed it from Walter Benjamin an early 20th century Marxist writer.
What is recorded then, is not necessarily the ‘whole story’ and in some cases just untrue. Shakespeare for example was rather good at writing ‘historical’ plays that clearly favoured the Tudor cause.
This is a continuing trend showing up in modern ‘historical’ movies, many of which are blatant propaganda and many which bend or modify the facts ‘for dramatic effect’, often with an American ‘hero’ who never existed.
Unfortunately, these sources seem to be from where a lot of people today are learning their ‘history’.
The trouble is that history is ‘hard’.
Much of historical research is boring, tedious detective work carried out in a dusty library or out in a field somewhere. New technology helps but it doesn’t get rid of the ‘grunt work’.
One of the reasons perhaps that more emphasis is placed in schools on more recent history is that it’s more ‘exciting’ and there are films and other live recordings actually made at the time – although these themselves are often just from one point of view.
But this can only go back so far, and we have to rely on the breakthroughs made by the historical detectives to find out what really happened.
But it’s not really the ‘events’ that we should be focusing on.
What’s more important to understand is the evolution of culture, of communities, of the way people think and see the world around them – and the influences on this resulting from technological changes.
The world is now ‘connected’. It no longer takes a day to travel 40 miles. We can talk to people instantly on the other side of the world instead of the several months it might have taken for a message to travel by sea.
It’s not about condemning how people behaved in the past, but about comparing that culture with what we have now and what we might have in the future.
It’s about learning lessons from the past so that we don’t make the same mistakes again and also so that we identify the positive traits and ideas that we may be able to use and enhance.
And for you and I – the same rules apply.
Look back, learn, go forward.
Have a great week