Don't look back: why does history matter?

Sunday 31 October, 10.45am until 12.15pm, Courtyard Gallery

We have an ambivalent attitude to the past today. We value novelty, and flatter ourselves on our supposedly fast-moving world. The idea of conserving the ideas and institutions of the past is unfashionable: even Conservative Prime minister David Cameron talks about ‘vanguard communities’ rather than traditional ones. At the same time, few would endorse the Khmer Rouge’s notorious ‘Year Zero’ attitude to history, rejecting the relevance of the past in favour of a blinkered determination to build a new society from scratch. So why does the past matter?

The cliché has it that if we don’t learn from history we are doomed to repeat it. But this seems to reduce history to a series of cautionary tales, and surely betrays a naïve view of how the world works. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the all-powerful Party declares ominously that, ‘Who controls the past controls the future’, pointing to a more cynically instrumental role for history. Crucially, the slogan also acknowledges implicitly that history is never a straightforward record of the past, but at least in part reflects the politics of the present. As another cliché reminds us, ‘History is written by the victors’. Nonetheless, the very acknowledgement that there are winners (and losers) is a nod to the reality of objective historical facts. History brings together the stark realities of the past with the often conflicting judgements, interpretations and interests of the present.

Contemporary doubts about the value of history are perhaps best expressed in the words of Henry Ford, that, ‘History is more or less bunk’, or the cynical refrain that history is just, ‘one bloody thing after another’. If all history is subjective, and open to reinterpretation, is there any point in attributing real meaning to it? And if we do, is this any more than myth-making, however worthy? Several historians have criticised the excessive focus in British secondary school history on the Nazis and the Holocaust, because it too transparently reveals a tendency to use history for moral lessons, with convenient tie-ins to contemporary concerns with citizenship, multiculturalism and so on. The new Conservative-led government has asked historians Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama to advise on reforming the curriculum, so can we expect a ‘back to basics’ approach focused on the forging of British institutions? And if so, would this be any more than an alternative form of politically-motivated story-telling?

For old-fashioned conservatives, tradition is a repository of wisdom, accumulated over the centuries in customs with which we meddle at our peril. But the idea of progress as opposed to mere change also implies building on the achievements of the past. So is a desire to conserve the legacy of the past necessarily conservative in a political sense? Should we show more respect for the achievements of our forebears, rather than assuming newer is better? Or should we ditch the ancestor-worship and free our children to make the world for themselves?

Listen to session audio:


Professor Sarah Churchwell
chair of Public Understanding of the Humanities; Professor of American literature, School of Advanced study, University of London

Professor Alan Hudson
director of leadership and public policy programmes, University of Oxford; visiting professor, Shanghai Jiaotong University

David Goodhart
director, Demos Integration Hub; author, The British Dream: successes and failures of post-war immigration

Roger Scruton
adjunct scholar, American Enterprise Institute, Washington DC; author, The Uses of Pessimism and Beauty

Dolan Cummings
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)

Produced by
Dolan Cummings associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)
Recommended readings
Simon Schama to advise ministers on overhaul of history curriculum

Education secretary Michael Gove tells Tory conference move will ensure no pupil leaves school without learning 'narrative British history'

Jeevan Vasaga and Andrew Sparrow, Guardian, 5 October 2010

Is it time for Hitler and Henry to make way for Cromwell?

Secondary school pupils are being taught too much Hitler and not enough about subjects such as the English Civil War, a conference of history teachers has been told.

Richard Garner, Independent, 30 June 2010

The Uses of Pessimism: and the Danger of False Hope

The true legacy of European civilisation is not the false idealisms that have almost destroyed it - in the shapes of Nazism, fascism and communism - but the culture of forgiveness and irony which we must now protect from those whom it offends.

Roger Scruton, Atlantic Books, 1 June 2010

Let’s give children the ‘store of human knowledge’

n flattering kids as ‘digital natives’ for whom the past is irrelevant, we degrade a vital adult mission: transmitting knowledge.

Frank Furedi, spiked, 19 November 2009

The Philosophy of History

Hegel develops the concept of history as a rational proceeding, rather than a series of random events.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Dover Publications, 1 November 2004

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