Why History Matters


History and Informed and Active Citizenship

History matters because in the same way that it can make our leaders better informed, it can make our citizens more informed and perhaps encourage them to be more active both in politics and in their communities.

Today, for example, there is an ongoing debate about how far the government should take care of the people of the country and how far people are responsible for themselves. The debate tends to polarise in an all-or-nothing way. It might be helpful for people to realise that in past times many welfare projects were carried out by ordinary citizens alongside the state taking action. In this document, for example, we see the citizens of Dundee organising themselves to discuss healthcare in the city. This was taking place at a time when Churchill and his colleagues in government were embarking on an ambitious programme of state help for the poorest in society, including old age pensions and school meals.
 

History matters because in the same way that it can make our leaders better informed, it can make our citizens more informed and perhaps encourage them to be more active both in politics and in their communities.

Today, for example, there is an ongoing debate about how far the government should take care of the people of the country and how far people are responsible for themselves. The debate tends to polarise in an all-or-nothing way. It might be helpful for people to realise that in past times many welfare projects were carried out by ordinary citizens alongside the state taking action. In this document, for example, we see the citizens of Dundee organising themselves to discuss healthcare in the city. This was taking place at a time when Churchill and his colleagues in government were embarking on an ambitious programme of state help for the poorest in society, including old age pensions and school meals.

View invitation to attend a Dundee Town Council meeting, 1909

There is another way in which history is important in shaping active citizenship. The writer George Orwell claimed in one of his most famous books, 1984, that whoever controlled the past controlled the present. It is not hard to see what he meant by this. If people generally accept a version of past events then politicians can use that acceptance to create support for their own policies in the present.

One example of this is appeasement, the policy followed by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the 1930s. You can find out much more about appeasement in this investigation: Did people agree with Churchill's stand on appeasement?

In simple terms the policy involved Chamberlain giving the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler what he wanted in order to try to avoid war. Because war happened anyway, Chamberlain’s policy became widely discredited and was used many times by political leaders in later years to justify their actions even though many historians were not convinced that the parallels really applied. This is an extract from a speech by Tony Blair in 2003:

In 1938 Chamberlain was a hero when he brought back the Munich Agreement and he did it for the best of motives. He had seen members of his own precious family, people he loved, die in the carnage of World War I. He strove for peace, not because he was a bad man. He was a good man. But he was a good man who made a bad decision.

One of the reasons why politicians have been able to use appeasement in this way is that Churchill wrote the history of the Second World War and his account became the widely accepted view of events for many years. A key part of this history was his version of events in which he was almost a lone opponent of appeasement and therefore the one man who turned out to be right. Historians do not really accept this view now, but it was very influential for many years. As Churchill said:

“For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all Parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself.”

(Churchill, 23 January 1948)

Although Churchill’s histories painted himself in a favourable light, he is generally considered to be a comparatively fair historian. Even so, it is important that citizens can see how historical accounts are constructed and challenged. There are many more dangerous examples of history being exploited for the benefit of present day politicians, and the more citizens are aware of this the more they can keep an eye on the stories they are being sold. We are currently seeing this playing out in present day Russia and in the USA. In Russia for example, President Putin has explicitly ordered the rewriting of school history textbooks and teaching to present the Soviet leader Stalin in a more positive light. President Putin is a great admirer of Stalin.

"In the history of Soviet Russia and its post-perestroika period two leaders, Stalin and Putin, stand out as the most influential figures in reshaping the image of the nation and winning the hearts and minds of millions of Russians. The nostalgic revival of Stalin and the elevation of Vladimir Putin as a national hero in the state controlled media have affected all spheres of Russian society, especially history and civic education. This chapter examines how current day Russian history textbooks have become a critical instrument in promoting a valorized and uncritical representation of Stalin and Putin..."

Russian History Textbooks in the Putin Era: Heroic Leaders Demand Loyal Citizens Tatyana Tsyrlina-Spady and Alan Stoskopf

The American researcher James Loewen found similar distortions of history in the textbooks of US classrooms, particularly over the teaching of the period of Reconstruction after the American Civil War. This issue is now becoming extremely controversial as many states are removing statues of Confederate commanders.

The United States is entering the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction, that period after the Civil War when African Americans briefly enjoyed full civil and political rights. African Americans — 200,000 of them — had fought in that war, which made it hard to deny them equal rights. Unlike with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, however, few historic places tell us what happened during Reconstruction. They could: Every plantation home had a Reconstruction history, often fascinating, but these manors remain frozen in time around 1859. They tell a tale of elegance and power, and Reconstruction was the era when that power was challenged. Moreover, it is still true, as W.E.B. Du Bois put it in “Black Reconstruction” 80 years ago, that “one cannot study Reconstruction without first frankly facing the facts of universal lying.”

James Loewen Five Myths about Reconstruction Washington Post 2016

It seems unlikely that statues of Churchill will be pulled down in the same way, but it does seem possible that his reputation may be re-evaluated by professional historians and members of the public. It seems reasonable therefore that this evaluation should take place in the context of historically informed active citizens rather than on the basis of folklore or personal memory.


Explore the other important reasons why we study history: