In Defence of the Distant Past

In Defence of the Distant Past

By Jonathan Healey

Published Online (2012)

Introduction: In my line of work, I end up reading a lot of UCAS forms. For those not familiar with the application process for British universities in, say, the last couple of decades, the UCAS form is something like a curriculum vitae for prospective students. It is where they detail their GCSE and AS-Level results, their predicted grades for the summer ahead, and it is where their head teacher weaves a golden narrative of their academic and personal achievements at school. But the real heart and soul of the UCAS form is not the dry statistics of results and predictions, or even the head’s glowing reference. No, the real heart is found in the student’s own ‘personal statement’. Here they detail why they want to study History; how they were inspired as children by visits to stately homes and castles; and how they have more recently been stimulated by the reading of some weighty historical tome – usually the provocative noodlings of a telly don: a Niall Ferguson, perhaps, or a David Starkey.

One of the most common problems that prospective students write about is the question of ‘why’. Why do we study History? What is the discipline for? What can it hope to achieve? And usually their answer is fairly straightforward: we study History because it teaches us lessons, ripe for application to today’s world . Indeed, History, they say, teaches us about how we got to where we are today. They normally mean politically: it is the story of the development of today’s political institutions; but they sometimes also include great social and economic developments: the rise of industrial capitalism and the affluence of the west, the emancipation of women, the gradual (but incomplete) conquest of racism. Their tone is usually optimistic: they are bullish about what humanity has ‘achieved’ (notwithstanding, of course, the unprecedented horrors of the twentieth century).The dominant approach even smacks a little (perhaps a lot) of nineteenth-century Whiggism: the intelligent sixth-former of today seems to see History in broadly progressive terms. Things are getting better; humanity is improving itself.

Such questions make for classic interview fodder. In Oxford, unusually amongst British universities, we actually get the chance to challenge our applicantson the statements they make on their UCAS forms. And it is questions of ‘why’ that have, in my time as an interviewer, provided some of the most interesting exchanges. My line of attack is normally this. ‘Here in Oxford’, I might say, ‘we take a chronologically wide view of History; we dig deep into the distant past, in fact, you are obliged to study at least one medieval period and one early modern period (broadly from about 1400 to 1750) . How can we justify that?’ Sometimes I permit myself a little diatribe. The medieval world is so different to ours, and the events westudy took place in an incomprehensibly distant age. The medieval mindset,economy, society, political organization (and so on) was so distinct from our own. How on earth can we draw lessons that are useful for today’s policy -makers from this? And the same can be said for the early-modern age, the period I research myself. Things were – simply – completely different back then. The distant past is not just a foreign country, it is a different world.

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See also In Defense of History

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