Ancient treasures: the importance of studying the past

Tim Miles

Tim is the Editor of the Innovate My School Magazine. Before joining Innovate, he worked for five years in the software industry, occupying every role from tea-making technical support specialist to programmer and project director. He writes about a range of subjects, including education, technology, history and religion.

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Politicians often remind us that we live in a modern world. A modern world, they say, requires a modern approach.

The first statement - that we live in a modern world - is so obvious that one is tempted to accept the second as equally self-evident, when in fact it is not.

The fact that a thing or idea is new or recent (which is all "modern" means) does not necessarily make it better than something older.

Of course, those in power want us to think that it does, because they want to bring in their own new ideas, or have recently done so. For them, admitting the superiority of an older way of doing things would mean conceding that there is no need for their new ideas (and no need for us to pay for them) or that the ideas they recently introduced have failed.

So they don't admit it. Instead they try to trick us into thinking that newer is always better: they use words such as modern and progressive as if they were synonymous with good; they scorn opponents for wanting to "turn back the clock", as if doing so would be unquestionably bad.

This is simply contemporary wisdom looking out for itself. Yet it is hard to contemplate the pre-modern world without feeling smug - or at least snug. Our superior comfort - which is due largely to science, a field in which newer does usually mean better - is another thing that tempts us to presume that newer is always better, that modern means good.

If we make this presumption, whether influenced by contemporary wisdom or comfort, it becomes easy to devalue the study of the past: to dismiss subjects like history and classics as outdated and irrelevant.

To do so would be rash. Even the staunchest modernist would surely agree that to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past it is necessary to know what they were. It is equally obvious that we can learn from history's success stories. 2000 years ago, Augustus Caesar united muddy and illiterate barbarians across all of Europe under a single cultural and political identity, ushering in four centuries of unity and prosperity under a central dictatorship, which eventually collapsed beneath the weight of its over-popularity. That was real social cohesion. Centuries before the internet, the mass media and even the printing press, Augustus built a reality that is beyond the modern Eurocrat's wildest dreams.  

Indeed, the past can inspire and instruct in ways the modern world simply cannot. Consider the warrior-king Henry V, bloodied sword in hand, battling bravely for honour and glory. Fast-forward to our modern leaders, who fight by leaking emails and lunching journalists. Imagine Edward III lying about his expenses. Compare the war of ideas between Burke and Paine with the cliché-addled political “debates” of today; Alfred's burghs with Cameron's Big Society; the economic insights of Adam Smith with those of Ed Balls; the tragedies of Shakespeare with the tragedy of EastEnders.

King Alfred the Great observed that “in the midst of prosperity, the mind is elated, and in prosperity a man forgets himself; in hardship he is forced to reflect on himself”. Our modern comforts and relative prosperity have made us soft and insipid. History is the realm of heroes.

And it is even more.

A person's history includes not just all that he has seen and done, but everything that he has felt, learnt and thought - everything that really makes him who he is. Without it he would be merely a creature of fashion and pleasure, living always for the moment and lasting only that long.

It is the same for a culture. Though tangible reminders endure – in architecture, traditions, literature and music – a culture truly exists only in the minds of its people. What they do not know of their culture's history will not remain part of their culture. Even the most stunning spires, profound poems and solemn ceremonies will become meaningless if the people who inherit them have no knowledge of the events that shaped them.

Ignorant of their culture's history, those people will be at the mercy of the few who know it well and see in it obstacles to their own designs. A man who does not know the history of habeas corpus or the Black Rod will not object (he may not even notice) as they are brushed out of time. He will see the scrapping of foppish traditions, and only realise what has truly been lost when it is too late.

Studying history is more than a way to learn from the mistakes and successes of the past. It is more than a way into a top university. It is more, even, than a way to unlock the thrilling stories of our greatest ancestors. It is the only way to understand the culture we have inherited, to develop a sense of fellowship with those who share it, and to recognise our responsibility to preserve and improve it for ourselves and our descendants.

Those looking for ways to innovate in schools should consider the history of the word itself: all the way back to its Latin root, innovare. Then they should renew the teaching of history, and restore it to the forefront of every child's education. Science awe-inspiringly shows our world as a pale blue dot on a vast cosmic canvas. History should show the present as a tiny island in the oceans of time. We should not limit our children's minds to this one quiet island - however comfortable it may be - but take them on voyages of wisdom and wonder across the high seas of history.

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