An article by Mark Rogers, Editor, Goldcoin.Org
Does History Matter?
Consider gold. If the first nugget had been discovered only yesterday, we would not know what it was; weeks, months, perhaps even years of analysis; it’s place in the Periodic Table to be decided; its worth to be discovered, perhaps taking decades; what is it good for – currency? jewellery? craftsmanship?
We simply would have no idea until perhaps many years had gone by what this newly discovered metal might be for and what its value could be. Other precious materials – diamonds, perhaps – already have a known value, perhaps a “diamond standard” has been tried…. It might even be that gold, only just discovered now, would be difficult to place in the hierarchy of already established precious materials.
Fortunately, we have six thousand years’ worth of history that enable us to judge gold properly; through that history we can see how and at what times it has been valued. Its capacity to be in turn a precious material valued for its beauty and malleability by craftsmen down the ages; a currency unit; a standard with which to back currencies, the remarkable qualities that make it the ideal storage of value, all this we know from our ability to study its history. We can examine its impact on societies at different epochs; the desire for it that has driven men and nations to desperate measures; the careful regard in which it was once held resulting in the gold standard.
Gold’s place in human affairs is well measured by these millennia of history.
History is People
On Friday, September 28th, 2012, the author of a series of undeservedly popular books, The Horrible Histories (History with the Nasty Bits Left In, History with the Boring Bits Left Out), published an article the vacuity of which takes the breath away.
History is about people, not 1066 and all that, by Terry Deary, may be found here
He takes a knowing and devoutly populist line (we’ll discover why later): “First, it’s worth posing this question: what is the point of history tests? If education is about preparing for ‘life’, then knowing that Magna Carta was signed at Runnymede doesn’t really pay the gas bill, does it?” He goes on to assert that practical matters, cooking, driving, parenting, don’t really depend on one’s being historically literate.
Wrong, Mr Deary. If an education is more, in fact, than a mere preparation for life, then broadening one’s range of knowledge is a good in itself. If mental alertness and intellectual discipline, being able to think things through, are necessary talents for and valuable consequences of the human condition, then there are many “purely” intellectual aspects of life that help fill that life out, and indeed, having a deal of historical knowledge can throw light on contemporary affairs, in a way which the ignorance that Mr Deary appears to be recommending cannot. So yes, in a roundabout way, using one’s mind in the pursuit of apparently “useless” knowledge may make one a more complete parent, a more careful driver, even a master cook if one takes the history of food and its preparation into account.
The Flippant Community, of which Mr Deary is naturally one, despises “dead” languages: but consider, as software developers devised ever more complex processing algorithms there was a sudden realisation in the 1990s that mathematics wasn’t enough. The cry went out from Silicon Valley for – Latinists: the “fuzzy logic” that mathematical computing had approached required not more mathematics but the linguistic flexibility of that most logical of languages. Do you use a computer Mr Deary? Then you are using a modern technology that delved into the ancient past to solve some of the most important problems that its development had thrown up.
What Mr Deary wants from whatever he conceives of as history is “stories about people”. And he gives an example of a person who died 100 years ago whom he considers a hero (I do not actually dispute that judgment, it’s the ideological use that he makes of his hero that is being considered here): go to the link above and read about Harry Watts, someone who felt no hesitation in rescuing people from drowning in conditions hazardous to himself.
Deary is almost papal in his disdain for what we, hoi polloi, need to know: let us be left in ignorance and merely emulate the lives of his chosen secular saints. “What would Harry Watts have done? History provides role models and prompts the great question, ‘Who am I?’” This is history as psychoanalysis, as therapy – which is not history.
If, as the example he gives and the reasons for it, suggest that in remembering the humblest we are acknowledging that the great chain of being depends on every one of its links, then that is all too the good: but it is not in fact what he is doing. He has his own hierarchy of values, as demonstrated by his discussion of Harry Watts.
But how does Deary know about Watts at all? To know him, and recognise what he did, we need to know his context, which is of course, from today’s vantage point, historical. Is Pope Terry offering himself as a latter-day Samuel Smiles, with, at least as far his example goes, his heroes belonging to Smiles’s epoch and earlier rather than his own (we are already in fairly deep historiographical waters here, and they just get deeper)? In order to understand the Smilesian Watts and to be able fruitfully to compare him to today’s paucity of Wattses (which in itself is making an assumption that is on a short-term historical view false), we need the entire arsenal of historical method and research in order to unearth him: how do we know that Deary hasn’t just invented him – we would need considerably more than Deary’s mere assertion to be objectively certain that Watts existed. We need that arsenal to compare him and explain why this matters.
Historical Inexactitude is Horrible
Now in the course of his article, Deary takes a good long sneer at an “indignant Welsh professor” who protested: “One student thought Martin Luther was an American civil rights leader!” Deary’s parenthetical comment: “(He was, but we’ll let that one pass.)”
No we won’t Mr History-is-People. Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk, dates November 10, 1483 – February 18, 1546, who was one of the great reformers of the Church, whose influence in the creation of Protestantism is one of the influences that shaped the following centuries down to our own.
The civil rights leader that the ignorant student was groping for was Martin Luther King, Jr., dates January 15, 1929-April 4, 1968. To quote the Nobel Prize website: “Martin Luther King, Jr., was born Michael Luther King, Jr., but later had his name changed to Martin. His grandfather began the family’s long tenure as pastors of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, serving from 1914 to 1931; his father has served from then until the present, and from 1960 until his death Martin Luther acted as co-pastor.”
The Boring Bits Left In
Historians, even those who lived in the past, are also “people”, so why not take them seriously? If it wasn’t for the techniques of sifting, objectifying, understanding the amorphous records of the past that have come down to us and which historians have laboured to authenticate and qualify perhaps Terrible Terry would never have found Harry Watts.
And those techniques inevitably require patience, which is the quality of being able to tolerate boredom in pursuit of a valuable end. History requires the “boring bits” if only to help fill out the authentic nature of the persons and events under discussion, and the methods of history were honed by, to name just a few of the greatest, Gibbon, Ranke, Mommsen, Macaulay.
However, Deary is not an historian, as he explained to The Guardian on Saturday 14 July 2012: “I don’t want to write history … I’m not a historian, and I wouldn’t want to be. I want to change the world. Attack the elite. Overturn the hierarchy. Look at my stories and you’ll notice that the villains are always, always, those in power. The heroes are the little people. I hate the establishment. Always have, always will.”
Read more interesting articles by Mark Rogers here