Sunday, July 09, 2006

Another Reason to love Stephen Fry

Yet another reason to love Stephen Fry -- History Matters

Stephen Fry on why History Matters. It's not everything, and I might not exactly agree with all of it, but it's a far better public articulation than I've seen in a long while. Here's a long excerpt, worthy of not being hidden behind a cut:
The biggest challenge facing the great teachers and communicators of history is not to teach history itself, nor even the lessons of history, but why history matters. How to ignite the first spark of the will o'the wisp, the Jack o'lantern, the ignis fatuus [foolish fire] beloved of poets, which lights up one source of history and then another, zigzagging across the marsh, connecting and linking and writing bright words across the dark face of the present. There's no phrase I can come up that will encapsulate in a winning sound-bite why history matters. We know that history matters, we know that it is thrilling, absorbing, fascinating, delightful and infuriating, that it is life. Yet I can't help wondering if it's a bit like being a Wagnerite; you just have to get used to the fact that some people are never going to listen.

No, it isn't exactly political correctness that dogs history; it's more a pernicious refusal to enter imaginatively the lives of our ancestors. Great and good men and women stirred sugar into their coffee knowing that it had been picked by slaves. Kind, good ancestors of all of us never questioned hangings, burnings, tortures, inequality, suffering and injustice that today revolt us. If we dare to presume to damn them with our fleeting ideas of morality, then we risk damnation from our descendants for whatever it is that we are doing that future history will judge as intolerable and wicked: eating meat, driving cars, appearing on TV, visiting zoos, who knows?

We haven't arrived at our own moral and ethical imperatives by each of us working them out from first principles; we have inherited them and they were born out of blood and suffering, as all human things and human beings are. This does not stop us from admiring and praising the progressive heroes who got there early and risked their lives to advance causes that we now take for granted.

Welcome to my first reading assignment of the year, class.


Lisa Spangenberg said...

Thanks for posting this; I hadn't seen it, and it is, as you say, very well done. I think Fry has been reading Rochester's Satire Against Reason and Mankind.

Anonymous said...

I had 2 excellent history teachers, one in high school and one in college. Both taught their courses in terms of the people involved and how those people shaped events. But it wasn't enough to make up for the years of dull history classes I'd been forced to sit through in school. I still thought history, in general, was a bore. And so many people still do. I get very funny looks when people see me reading A History of Great Britain or something similar about the French Revolution.

I think more people would realize just how interesting - hell, how fascinating - history is if it were written in the format of People magazine or the National Enquirer. I'm pretty sure a big part of the reason it's considered dull is because of the way so many of the textbooks were written. The college class I loved was based on two thin paperbacks which focused on two consecutive eras of British history.

So, maybe if textbooks were written in a more flamboyant manner - I know this goes against the grain in any academic subject - more non-history majors would be interested. And then maybe no one would have to explain why it's important to learn lessons from the past. Because once you understand exactly what happened, and grasp the consequences, you tend not to forget it.


Ahistoricality said...

I had lousy history teachers until graduate school...

I think Fry's comments about the self-justification which goes on in the classroom is somewhat overrated. All disciplines need to appeal to practical considerations, "real world" issues, to maintain student and admininstrative interest. I do it all the time, sure, but so do my literary, chemistry, sociological and econ. colleagues.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Why? What possible use can reading metaphysical poets or 19th c. novels or sf/fantasy or Shakespeare have in the real world? It's the material itself that is enjoyable and that matters. I could argue that, just as in English classes, History classes teach you to write, they teach analytical skills, they teach construction of narrative based on fact ... all of these things are true.

But when it comes down to it, at least at the college level, a lot of it is also, "This stuff is really cool. You will never have a chance to do this again, but you'll learn to appreciate it for yourself if you do well here. ANd it's about understanding people who are utterly alien to you, and when is that ever a bad thing?"

cardinal_wolsey said...

I was pleased to see this initiative as well - it even made it into the main newspapers.
I have started a not-very-serious history blog I would welcome comments on at