“HISTORY IS BUNK”. So, said Henry Ford in 1916. Although he meant something different to what I understood by those words, I feel that they apply very well to the history lessons that I had to suffer at school until I was about 14 years old. It was not that I had no interest in history when I was a child but the way it was taught at the schools, which I attended, put me off studying the subject any longer than I needed.
At the Hall School in Swiss Cottage, which I attended between the ages of 8 and 13, history was one of the subjects that had to be learnt in order to pass the Common Entrance examination that would admit me to a private secondary school. Each school year, we began British history with the arrival of the Romans in Britain and worked through the centuries until we reached the end of the 19th century. The emphasis was on chronology of events rather than what happened, and why it did, and, what were its consequences. We were being trained to answer idiotic examination questions such as:
“Put the following in chronological order: Archbishop Laud, the Corn Laws, Lady Jane Grey, Plassey”
To know their dates was important. To understand their roles in the history of Britain or elsewhere seemed irrelevant. You are probably beginning to get the idea of why history taught like this failed to capture my interest.
Something unpardonable about the teaching of history at the Hall was that although we had to learn the dates of important battles that the British fought overseas, we had no idea of their significance. It was like learning about a series of football or other sporting results. For example, it was long after leaving the school that I began to understand why our ‘team’ was sent abroad to fight Napoleon. It was not simply to notch up yet another British victory at, say, Waterloo, which is what I was led to believe at the Hall, but to combat a force that was invading most of Europe. The same is true of British victories in India and North America. It was vaguely satisfying to know that we had ‘scored’ well at Arcot, Plassey, and Quebec, but I was not aware that the reasons for these battles were ever explained to us.
Well, with the help of my mother, who spent many hours of my spare time cramming the historical facts into my head, I was successful at the Common Entrance examination and gained admission to Highgate School. As far as history was concerned, things did not improve at my new school. Our class was taught by the eminent historian AW Palmer, who eventually gave up teaching to devote his time to writing books on a variety of historical subjects, many of which I now find interesting. However, it was our fate to have to study the history of the USA. We had a textbook with an orange cover, whose title and author I have long forgotten. Neither this nor Mr Palmer managed to excite in me any interest in the undoubtedly exciting history of the USA. So, when we were given the choice of dropping either physics or history, I abandoned the latter. In my time at Highgate, history was alternative to physics, geography to chemistry, and Latin to woodwork. I chose chemistry and Latin in addition to physics.
When I was about 16, I used to walk from our family home to Finchley to visit my father’s colleague Kurt Klappholz and his wife Gwyneth. I was fond of them as well as their two children, one of whom was named after me. Gwyneth taught history at a local school and quickly realised that although I was not taking her subject at school, I was, in fact, quite interested in it. She recommended that I read a series of books written by the historian Alistair Horne. He wrote history in such a way that reading it was as enjoyable as reading a gripping novel. Everything he included in his narratives was reliably sourced. His books are both scholarly and engrossing. Through reading these books and discussions with Gwyneth, my interest in history grew and grew. I am eternally grateful to her for this.
If, God forbid, I should ever decide to study for another degree, I would head for a course in modern history. Far from being ‘bunk’, history is most important. As someone said to me recently:
“The future is a plant that grows in the soil of the past.”
And in the words of the philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952), who influenced Bertrand Russell among others:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
I hope that we can learn from the past (by studying history) and avoid repeating the mistakes, which were made then, in the future. But maybe, I am being a little bit over-optimistic.