What happened? The purpose of history

I’m writing a little ebook at the moment and had cause to go back to my old blog where I found the following from 2013. I thought it might be worth re-posting.

I attended a comprehensive school in England in the late eighties and early nineties. Until the age of fourteen, I didn’t study a subject called, “history.” Instead, I studied, “humanities.” Despite efforts to obscure the history content, it was pretty clear when we were studying a history topic. We’d flit about through time, like Dr Who in his TARDIS. One week, we’d be trying to work-out the identity of Jack the Ripper. We had no concept of the social context in which the Whitechapel murders took place. The teacher kept going on about Prince Eddie; I wanted to know if Prince Eddie became King Edward (of the potatoes) but this remained unanswered – I don’t know if the teacher was sure.

The next week we would be discussing whether our views of Richard III were based upon Tudor propaganda. I remember very clearly my frustration at that time; I didn’t have any views on Richard III. First, I wanted to know who Richard III was and why he was king. Was he descended from William the Conqueror, for instance? I worked out that this must have all happened before Henry VIII and his six wives, a topic I had “done” at primary school, because the Henry that was fighting Richard III was being referred to as Henry VII. What were these, “wars of the roses,” that our teacher either supposed that we already knew about or had judged far too dull to trouble us with? Instead of answering the questions that interested me, we focused elsewhere. Henry had defeated Richard in the battle of Bosworth and conventional history records that Richard was a hunchback and that he killed the, “princes in the tower,” whoever they were, but was conventional history true? Henry was the victor so were we suffering from a view obscured by the Tudors?

Our task was to do some, “source analysis,” and think critically. One of the sources was this painting (from the National Portrait Gallery in the UK);


Another was Shakespeare’s description from the play Richard III of a man, “deform’d, unfinished.” Shakespeare, apparently, was a Tudor stooge.

How much should we therefore believe? What is the nature of history? Is there a history of the winners and a history of the losers? Are different viewpoints equally valid? This was the substance of our inquiry.

The answer to all this, of course, is, no. Truths about history are not mutable, dependent upon your perspective, as postmodernists would have us believe. We can now clearly resolve one of the key questions that my teacher posed. Richard III was deformed and we know this because they’ve found him in a car park in Leicester.


One thought on “What happened? The purpose of history

  1. Ann in L.A. says:

    Our kids’ experience of “Humanities” was also a disaster on the English side of things. It was supposed to be a combined history/social studies/English class, so they tried to make everything tie in together for that lovely immersive experience. That means that the books they read for the English part of the class tended to be very poorly written crap that just happened to be set in the right historical time to match up with the history part of the class.

    So, instead of reading top notch pre-teen and teen appropriate literature, they were reading dreck. Often that dreck had been written well below grade level with the intent of being used as a tie in for Humanities classes.

    I can’t help but think of the opportunity cost and what they could have been reading instead.

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