Is our Generation Ignorant of History?
Knowing only the facts is so twentieth century
photo from socialist.memo.ru
by Peter Randall
Anyone familiar with the rhetoric of conservatism in this country will be all too familiar with the often hurled accusation that the young people of today know nothing of their past. It's in Daily Mail articles, and snobbishly implied by figures such as Jacob Rees-Mogg while somehow ignorantly connecting Brexit to the Magna Carta. As a student of history, I find this to be quite insulting to say the least, but it is an accusation which may have some truth to it.
To study history, or at least to study history well, I do believe you must approach every topic with an open mind and not reject any suggestion simply because it bothers some aspect of your identity. And that is why, when I reflected on this accusation so often hurled at our generation, I must acknowledge we do seem to simply know less ‘facts’ from the past.
Anyone who has a keen interest in mediæval history will have learned of the absolute dedication to memorising prayer and biblical passages that the ecclesiastical scholars of Catholic monasteries held. Or we could look to the Islamic world, where it wouldn’t be remarkable for a devoted individual to have memorised the entire Qur'an. These were people dedicated to the memory of their past, or at least, their conceptions of the past.
However, more modern examples can easily be found. If we take a look at Russia during its revolutionary period in 1917 it might shock the modern reader to learn just how detailed the collective knowledge of ordinary Russian workers seems to have been. To steal knowledge I recently gained from a Guardian article, it seems apparent these people had a detailed knowledge of historical events. They would warn of another Thermidor, in reference to what would now be seen as a relatively obscure month of France's history in which the revolutionary terror developed. I doubt that most people of our age could have such detailed knowledge of the Russian Revolution of the last century, while these people seemed to have a remarkably detailed knowledge of French history down to individual months from a century before.
All this leads to a pretty inevitable conclusion: we have lost our capacity for knowledge. The article I referred to earlier is an interesting read and one I'd recommend. It was dubbed ‘Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history’. I'd call it badly titled, for they had knowledge of history but that doesn't necessarily mean understanding it. Understanding is simply a starting point. Today almost any piece of information can be unearthed in an instant. A Russian worker in 1917 may have known of a popular political movement in Paris from 1817, but I can just pull out my phone and find out the precise details of how many people were involved (if the sources are there). Then I can access information from before and after. Using this I can begin to critically analyse the topic with relative ease. Granted, with a limited knowledge I may easily make mistakes, but if I wanted to make it my life's work I could discover everything ever recorded on the topic.
Furthermore, our generation doesn't just have tools to use, but it is quite well prepared in the ways of scepticism. We've been taught from a young age that there are two sides to every coin, instilled with simplistic expressions like ‘history is written by the victors'.
I'm not claiming that healthy scepticism makes someone a historian, but it does make people quite able to begin to engage in historical debate.
The workers in Petrograd were clearly attempting to learn from the mistakes of the past, but almost entirely expected the repetition of a narrative - this is how a revolution went before, this is how it will go again. I certainly do not mean to be dismissive of these people’s intelligence, but it is quite a basic level of understanding they seem to have held.
If I were to take the same facts that they knew, and give them to a bunch of first-year engineering students, I reckon a debate could get going over the ‘true’ implications of the French Revolution within minutes. The youth of today do not idolise figures like Churchill or see the Magna Carta as some kind of defining point in their national identity. Ironically, by taking a few steps back from the past we can gain a better understanding of it. People are quick to realise that historical context must be analysed and understood, and that this is more important than simply ‘knowing the facts’. This is what differentiates a knowledge of narrative from an understanding of people.
The argument I want to put forward here is that what we have lost in knowledge, we have gained in understanding. Furthermore, I would say we have gained a lot more by having understanding, for understanding is so much more important to history. With an understanding of the people of history, we can better analyse them, or we can if you're willing to risk it, attempt to make predictions about the future based on the past. This may be a futile effort, but I think you'll stand a better chance if you know where fascism, for example, came from rather than just when it appeared. We have lost our storybook narrative of the past. The older generation thinks of kings and queens and how they led down a line to modern Britain, but through understanding, I hope, our generation has gained the capability to truly gain a greater grasp of why Kings and Queens acted a certain way, rather than just knowing that Henry VIII ruled in 1510. After all, whether you're a history student or not, I'm inclined to believe you'll find the nature of human behaviour more interesting than any fact or number.