Why should we be interested in history? Because we can’t afford not to be.

Henry Ford once insisted history was ‘bunk’, declaring: ‘We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.’

History has also been listed as ‘one damn thing after another’ – an aphorism likely first uttered by Arnold Toynbee.

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985
Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty of Waitangi being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

So why should we bother with it? Those of us who did history at school – certainly in New Zealand in the twentieth century – probably got sick of having to memorise lists of English monarchs and being told that New Zealand didn’t have a history. I know I did.

Fact is, New Zealand does have a history – and a very interesting one. It’s a history that encompasses everything that makes history worthwhile, because it’s a history – in effect – on fast forwards

Why should we be bothered with history? Because it defines us. Becaue it is about the human condition, about the why of the past – and so, about the why of the present. It’s about how  things happened. It’s about the shapes and patterns that changed the past into the present.

It is, in short, about understanding where we’ve been – and from that, understanding where we are now. And, maybe, where we could go in future.

I like it that way. As the world spirals into climate change, and increasingly violent collisions of ideologies and people, one of the ways we can understand what is going on – and how we might work our way out of it – is through understanding history and the way it shapes the present – and future.

What does history mean to you?

And if you want to see what I’m talking about…


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Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


20 thoughts on “Why should we be interested in history? Because we can’t afford not to be.

  1. I remember reading Livy’s History of Rome way too many years ago and being struck by the similarity between the subject matter in debates of the Roman Senate and reports of legislative debates in the US Senate. I remember thinking that people and their problems don’t seem to change much, which goes along with the idea of being doomed to repeat history if one doesn’t understand it.

    There’s also a psychological principle that might be relevant, the idea that if you repress why you do things, you keep doing them and are powerless to change … until you recall your own history.

    I think knowledge and self-awareness are closely related. Knowing history is a good way to increase one’s self-awareness. Thoughts?

    1. I agree. And while history never repeats in detail, the fact remains that the human condition doesn’t change so quickly – hence we find the same patterns repeated, time and again. But I think that often these lessons are obscured in the way that history is presented to us.

      That’s been especially so here in NZ, where the late twentieth century brought a complete reinvention of our history – all framed around ‘post colonial’ thinking which, in point of fact, merely reversed what had been said before and did not transcend it. A failure of interpretative philosophy and of imagination as far as I am concerned.

      To me the issue was epitomised by the way the ‘New Zealand Wars’ were re-mythologised. These wars were fought 1845-1872 between Maori and British. In the late twentieth century they were reinterpreted in post-colonial terms – an effort that seemed ‘modern’ and ‘forward looking’, largely because it spoke to prevailing late twentieth century ideals. But as a way of understanding the wars in their own terms it was sheerest rubbish, militarily ignorant…for instance, the prevailing idea afterwards among the pretentious in-crowds of the field was that Maori had invented trench warfare and the British then used it in the First World War. Utter nonsense, of course.

      I wrote two books refuting the argument – which was trivial to do. Maori got the technique from the British in the first instance, specifically by visiting the RMA at Woolwich in 1820. But all I got for my pains was abuse, both from the post-colonial in-crowd for daring to dispute the historian who’d concocted this nonsense, and by the author of that interpretation himself, whose main response was to get angry and swear when my name was mentioned to him on national radio. Did he have the guts to approach me in person? Nooooo!

      Personal issues aside, the point is that the realities of that past, in the sense of the more timeless human condition, were thoroughly obscured by the way that past was re-written to suit late twentieth century academic pop-ideology. It bought status for whose who did it, among their peers, but meant that the actual issues of the day could not be seen in their own terms – and thus, the basic human condition underlying them was distorted and obscured.

  2. PS: here in the States we seem to have a peculiar aversion to history, an attitude I’ve never understood or been comfortable with. My take on your quote from Henry Ford, as an “Americanism,” it means more that you don’t need to let the past control you, you can become whatever you can work had and make of yourself. But history also has the aspect of keeping records of industrial experiments — what worked, what didn’t, what was more efficient and why. You’d think Henry Ford would be sympathetic with history from that perspective.

    There’s a darker aspect to not knowing history. If you don’t know what happened in the past, those more knowledgeable can manipulate you into repeating it for their own purposes.

    1. I think Ford was right in his sense that what counts is what you do today – and yes, that can make history. He did, and I think he knew it.

      You’re spot on about the darker side of not knowing history! Worse than that – I fear that those who are ignorant of history but who end up in authority usually end up repeating those dark sides anyway. I’m thinking of a certain failed artist and shell-shocked Corporal who took Germany down a very bleak path from 1933, endlessly appealing to his bourgeoise version of events in German history to ‘prove’ that what he was doing had precedent. It didn’t, of course. And the flip-side was that those who DID know history – especially Winston Churchill, who was very much a historian – also knew where Hitler’s madness would lead the world. I think the historical period Churchill used as his analytical tool was was Cromwell’s Commonwealth, very much an organised police state which had come to a dismal end. But of course Hitler took that to a far darker extreme; and if there was ever a war that we can regard as justified, it was the struggle to stop the Nazis and their deep evil. They had to be stopped, whatever it took, lest the world plunge into a new dark age – and Churchill knew it. Because he knew history.

  3. I think a crucial appeal is understanding how change really happens. Its also very satisfying intellectually – does history happen in ‘milestones’ or gradually, do individuals make a difference, is change caused by big structural factors, almost inevitable. We’re having another revisit of the ’causes of World War 1′ debate at the moment which is a great example of the challenges and rewards of understanding the past. The lessons are still relevant today.

    1. The current WWI re-visit is fascinating; for the first time, we’re moving the historiography on past the ‘senseless slaughter’ interpretation – which is accepted and understood – to look for deeper issues. In particular, and in spite of that death, was it justified? To find out we have to explore counterfactuals which – as you point out – force us to also investigate and try to understand how history ‘works’, in terms of the way trends and societies change. Something absolutely important for us to understand today.

      My take on the ‘great man’ theory, incidentally – which I built into a biography I wrote a decade or so ago, on Sir Bernard Freyberg, VC – is that ‘great men’ don’t make trends; but they can be carried aloft by them – and often know how to focus existing sentiment.

      1. There have been some good docos in the UK on the origins and rationale for WW1 (The Necessary War & The Pity of War) which are worth watching, not sure that New Zealand has really tackled the debate that much in public although I don’t watch much TV! Our own debate has some different dimensions. The simply awful “Great Wrong War” a few years ago has at least some merit as a provocation to think more deeply about the reasons for our own involvement.
        For the record I think anyone who reads about Germany’s intentions, the Kaiser’s thinking as expressed in his notes on Linchowsky’s report in 1912 etc would be hard pressed to argue that it was a British imperial war. Have a look at the Septemberprogramm and the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

        1. Eldred-Grigg’s ‘The Great Wrong War’ was a very peculiar and certainly, from the historical perspective, unsustainable re-casting of events as far as I am concerned. There was a symposium here late last year on future directions for military historical study, focussing on WWI, but I wasn’t invited to even attend as audience – the public- and university-funded military crowd here introduced themselves to me some years ago via some defamatory public allegations about the calibre of the work I do to earn income in a field where I also pay their salaries through my taxes and haven’t included me in anything they offer since. Not one of them has had the guts to introduce themselves to me, either – and all I can suppose is that my endeavours have simply triggered the malice of deeply insecure intellectuals whose conduct, by their failure to actually introduce themselves to me or discuss whatever problem they have with my endeavours, smacks of cowardice.

          The only exception was the military historian who stood over me in the Archives New Zealand reading room with balled fists and red face, screaming demands at me to know what I was doing, and bellowing that he was doing ‘the same thing’. I’d never seen the guy before – he recognised me, it seems, from my author photo, got angry, and stormed across to have a go. I thought I was going to be hit, and I’m pretty sure I would have been if I’d stood up.

          I don’t know whether any of them have realised that this is how their behaviour comes across, but there you are.

          However, there is a direction in the UK which I am looking into, suggesting that the First World War was actually justified from the viewpoint of curbing German imperialism – as you mention, their intentions were reasonably well telegraphed. The primary focus of our historiography has traditionally been on the senseless death – the issues that flowed from the tactical problems of field defence, on an expanded battlefield, that infantry alone could not tackle. That’s now very well understood and accepted. But there are other dimensions to the war – including some of the deeper reasons why the British and French were prepared to sustain it even after the trench deadlock became evident – which still need exploring.

  4. So good to read this. I’m a big believer in, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” I’ve studied military history, albeit informally, for the majority of my life. I find it fascinating. For me, it provides clarity to current events. A lot of what I see happening now looks familiar. Often when I hear a politician speaking something that folks believe is new and unique, I think to myself, “Oh that old saw. Macchiavelli used that to great effect.” I’ve been accused of being “obsessed” with the past by people who the think the Arab/Israeli conflicts began in 2006. I’ve since learned it’s impolite to tell such people they’re idiots, but what else can I say? 😉

    1. Arab/Israeli conflict? That was 1948, wasn’t it? Or 1967 (complete with Panzer IV’s left over from WWII). Or 1973. Or 1982. Or… or…(sigh)….

      Military history is a fascinating subject & very much an object lesson in the adage that if we forget history then we are doomed to repeat it. I made my name as a professional historian in the late 1990s doing military history freelance for various publishers – discovering the hard way that the field here in NZ is exclusively owned by a small in-crowd of academics and public servants, all prospering at my expense as taxpayer, who responded to my efforts to earn income in their territory, independently on merit, with some explosively hostile assaults on my good name and repute. These angry strangers were falling over each other in their eagerness to present me as incompetent to the book-buying public and their malice didn’t slow up until I offered to take legal action against one of them for defamation, which was where his behaviour had finally led him. None of them had the guts to introduce themselves to me or discuss their problem in person, of course. I’m still paying their salaries, though my taxes.

      1. My God! Really? Aren’t people supposed to leave social cliques behind after high school? At least the idiots I experienced were in their late teens/early twenties cannot be expected to have adult intelligence. I would’ve thought that the small group of historians you encountered would’ve enjoyed having a new member and welcomed you with brandy and cigars. So bizarre that it all had to come down to legal action. So sorry you experienced that.

        1. I got that welcome from the Royal Military College st Sandhurst. That led to my being elected a Fellow of thecRoyal Historical Society at University College in London. All on merit of the very same work that the local military academic crowd were falling over themselves to ridicule. Speaks for itself. Since then I find the local lot have been spouting some of my interpretations as if their own. Two of them even helped themselves to my copyright material without asking and so far have ignored my letter on it. I haven’t pursued. I hesitate to engage their moral void. But I do wonder why I am paying for it through my taxes.

  5. I loved this post and I completely agree with you. I think NZ needs to change the way in which they approach the teaching of history in school, perhaps by focusing on the content first. I took history from Year 7 to Year 11 and each and every year we learnt the same things. We fixated on certain events like the Treaty of Waitangi, visiting Te Papa over and over again. We never studied the histories of overseas countries, never anything before the 1900s, we all hated it. And as you said, we were told that NZ doesn’t have a history, which we all found hard to believe at first but it was something that ended up being drilled into us. It was only in Year 11 that some of us, those that pushed on with the subject, learnt that NZ was the first country to give women the vote – an especially important piece of information for girls at a girls only school though they may have thought we already knew. Now that I’m slightly older, I have come to appreciate NZ’s history for, as you said, it really is an interesting one. There’s so much we never studied. History to me is more than just the past. I believe in order for events in the past to be remembered we in the present need to have an emotional connection with them on some level, history therefore is our connection across the generations.

    1. There is something about school that manages to turn interesting things into dullness. What worries me is that the current curriculum seems to be framed in the revisionist ideas that gained ground in the early 1980s, but which have served only to create a new set of mythologies about the past. There’s a lot more to our history than that, of course – and it all deserves exploring.

  6. Marvelous post, Matthew, and one that should be repeated regularly as for most, remembering is not a priority, much less considering history. I agree with the discussion as well as your post. As always, your writing is thoughtful, cogent.

    For me, it is the ignorance of history that harms most, your example being the classic one. History and civics in America is at a nadir that few ever believed possible–I among them–but we have repeated the classic mistake of forgetting what makes a republic, and beyond that, we do not accept the consequences of our actions anywhere in the world. These may seem strong words but for a country that has as much as we do, we do so little for humanity or the world, in general. I suppose I am getting beyond the scope of your post but America has taken actions that will be felt for generations across the globe–many have occurred out of ignorance of history, in particular the story of other countries and peoples–yet, what can be expected from a government that does not know its own function much less its history? Of course, it is a government elected by the people….

    A bit of a vent, I know, but I appreciate that your post gets such discussions started. Again, thanks.

    1. We all deserve a vent every now and then! I think every nation continuously re-frames its view of its own history in terms of its own present priorities – New Zealand certainly is no exception here. On my research into it, the shifts seem to be generational (approx 25-30 years) and it sometimes takes two generations before a really firm mythology is dislodged. That shift of viewpoint can be active – here in New Zealand, for instance, our colonial history has been consciously re-invented by a new generation of historians who seem to have done it as much to win a ‘race for status’ among themselves as to find any meaningful insight into the how and why of past events. Elsewhere, as you suggest, it could be through studied ignorance of what happened.

      It’s a phenomenon, I think, that we cannot escape – one has but to look back at Tacitus, for example, to see exactly the same re-conceptualisation of past events to suit contemporary need going on nearly 1800 years ago. Even now, I think, most of us accept his interpretation of a declining dictatorship 200 years before his own time, successively up to Nero (who was the worst of them) without realising the whole lot was framed as a dig at Tacitus’ contemporary Emperor, Diocletian. An example of the persistence of the myth-making that often accompanies the re-framing of history to suit the immediate needs of the historians.

      1. Oh, thank you, Matthew, especially for reminding me about Tacitus. I had forgotten. There was a time I had such conversations and considerations on a regular basis, and I miss them, providing yet another reason for appreciating your blog.

        1. Tacitus was an extraordinary historian for his day. I was introduced to his work post-grad by Prof. Peter Munz, under whom I studied philosophy in the early 1980s. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Munz) It was a curious experience. Munz had, himself, studied under both Karl Popper and Wittgenstein, at Oxford, but ended up back in New Zealand where his stature in the field essentially meant he was targeted by the whole of the faculty in the usual way academics try to tear each other down here. I was very lucky to be able to study under him, but the cost to me was that I was never accepted as part of the ‘in’ crowd cultivated by the rest, and never did pursue an academic career. I don’t regret it.

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