Why I’m still learning life lessons from learning History

I’ve always loved History, except I didn’t really know it until I was halfway through my life. If you’d have asked me shortly after leaving school about the dates of Kings and Queens, or why certain wars happened, I probably would have shrugged and said “I had a GCSE in History, but I’ve forgotten it all now!” And yet, as I follow the twin paths of motherhood and developing as a writer, I find myself reflecting that History has far more to teach us than just ‘what happened then’.

My husband recently queried why the school my children attend used a single event in history (in this instance The Great Fire of London) as a whole topic for half a term. I responded that of course it wasn’t just a single event, the children were learning about it in context, which meant that they were learning about all sorts of stuff surrounding it. My youngest, who at the age of 6 is the one immersed in the period, rattled off a whole string (unprompted!) of facts about why the fire happened, and was able to answer some quite detailed questions about the construction of the buildings at the time, how the fire had spread, eye-witness accounts from Samuel Peyps etc. Yes, I was very proud. No, I hadn’t tutored her in it.

In schools these days, history isn’t just a set of names and dates, stories about what happened to whom. Cleverly, by using it as a topic over a number of weeks, it is a tool to explore writing, reading, textiles, design and construction and so much more. Earlier that week the class had all witnessed for themselves a ‘science’ experiment with cardboard city they designed and built, which the teacher then set fire to in order to demonstrate how the fire had spread! I hasten to say this was of course done outside in a special area of the forest school with fire safety briefings beforehand and fire extinguishers at the ready!

Tudor House, by R (aged 6)

I confess I was absolutely delighted – my long held theory that history needs to be brought to life, literally experienced as much as it’s possible to, in order to appreciate it and is impact to be felt, was demonstrated. All my time spent arranging days out to historical places of interest and using all available resources to help bring history to life for my children (dressing up, acting out, all the wonderful activities which the National Trust and English Heritage do so ably) seemed vindicated. Would my children equally relish history as I do now? Would they surpass me and actually remember relevant things from it?

Then I realised, my parents had done the same for me too – many a holiday was spent truding around historic houses, or climbing hills where significant battles were held or proclamations made. Did I remember the details though? Did I grasp the significance of them? No. For all of this wonderful immersion in history they too were at pains to provide for me, I remembered absolutely nothing which I thought at the time was important, especially for exams.

However, what it did leave me with was a love of history, even if clearly I didn’t ‘get it’ until very recently. As an adult, I find myself taking refuge in past times – in literature, or wandering around a castle imagining what life must have been like then. I question and explore how it must have felt to be living in turbulent times, what their daily life was like and how different it was to our own. As I am currently writing a novel set in the Tudor age, I am revelling in having to immerse myself in their times and truly imagine what my characters would have done in that period with the choices they make.

Above all, history gives you a sense of perspective – it’s easy to dash off cliches like ‘we should learn from the lessons of the past’, but actually when you think about it, all of our knowledge is built on the lessons of the past. Toddlers learn to step over the rocks on the pathway because they have learnt that if they don’t pick up their feet they stumble and that hurts. Children learn to correct their mistakes before the teacher points it out to them again. Adults, when pondering life decisions, look to what went wrong for them before and make a judgement on if the same outcome is likely again if they choose to progress down a certain line of action. Every advance we make as a civilisation is informed by what went before. It is inescapable as we carry with us the baggage of the past into the future with us.

An understanding of history has indelibly impacted how we view the world. This seems especially pertinent with every twist and turn of world politics – historic political and religious grudges play out on an economic stage and long held belief systems are challenged around the world on a daily basis. Institutions rise and fall as conflicting belief systems inevitably clash and public sentiment swishes from one mood to another. History in terms of cause and effect has not moved on, even if the minutae and settings have.

What history does not do, and this is the interesting part for me, is predetermine the certain future. At no point can the same outcome as what happened before be guaranteed, for circumstances are always changing. This is perhaps the hardest lesson our children need to learn about history – linear creatures that they are! And it is only really as an adult that you come to understand that there are no hard and fast rules in history to dictate precisely that what will happen in the future will be the same as what happened before. In order to truly learn from what happened in the past, we must apply perspective to our informed judgement. The dates become irrelevant then; only the circumstances under which significant events in history happened need to be factored in to inform the future. However, even by understanding the factors which influenced the event, how likely is it that the same outcome would occur? Given the rapid speed of change across the hyper-connected world today, the events of old seem archaically slow and thus easily written off as irrelevant.

History is ultimately about the people who shaped the past.

And this is ultimately what history has to teach us, in my humble opinion. That human nature is the constant, not the circumstances. People will always want more than they have, suffer from the sins as listed out in Biblical times, and yet, will love and fight with a passion which belies their fragile frames. History is ultimately about the people who shaped the past. It is a study of human nature, in the vain hope that the more extreme elements of it which has driven some of the most shocking events in the past, are identifiable and ideally prevented from damaging again. I wish I’d twigged that when I was younger instead of fretting about the dates of treaties and getting people’s names spelt right! Perhaps if we all approached history with a different perspective we might indeed be able to progress towards a fairer, peaceful society to live in. I have higher hopes for my children however, with this immersive way of teaching a living history! Bread roll anyone?

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