A Matter of Historical Perspective

In the previous post, some comments from the editor of Record of Witney (1978) on the future of the historical society stood out and suggested a line of thought:

Does such a society have practical purposes and what might those purposes be?

In a conversation relating to that, an idea was put forward that a history society should be, if not apolitical, then above politics. A counter-point suggested that since a historical society studies the past, that this perspective means a student of history can consider the past’s relation to the present and the future, and that it could be argued that the work of a history society is not only to examine dusty tomes and artefacts from the past, but to take what is learned and put it to use in the present with an eye to the future.

What does that mean?
Perhaps that the critical thinking skills and research needed to examine the past can be put to use in the present as living history unfolds around us.

Indeed, that an ability to look at the past is important for understanding current events, and that critical thinking skills needed in studying history could form a pillar in a platform for education – that history is not just about dead people and things from long ago, but has an important place in how people live now and will choose to live in the future.

Like so many things in history, this is not so much an answer to the question of what purpose(s) a history society should serve, but a starting point for ideas to be considered. Could it be argued that the purpose of a historical society is always open for interpretation, and that a most important aspect is the careful use of sources and interpretation?

Might it also be suggested that far from being apolitical, it is the duty of a history society to point out contradictions, correlations and questions, not from the position of partisan politics, but from ‘above’ politics, since it seems likely that whoever has the mantle of power they generally prefer not to have inconvenient questions asked?

Where is this all leading you might be asking?

Well, one of the sections for witneyhistory.org is called Living History, and an interesting example of the need for careful research has just presented itself.
Researching a subject can be complex, and with the ‘distance’ of time, the complexities multiply.
For example, discovering an artefact is one thing, but when looking at written sources, how can one be certain that the author of the time was representing events accurately and without bias?

Two recent stories in the media have been reported in distinctly different ways, to the extent that it might be difficult to determine the truth of a matter. If this occurs for current stories, consider the complexities for stories from the past when, to use a quote often attributed to Winston Churchill: ‘History is written by the victors‘.

Perhaps these are not ‘big’ stories, but they are indicative of an underlying problem. For the moment we’ll just take a quick look at one of the stories.

On Thursday 17th April 2014 The Oxford Mail published:
“The Right Reverend John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford delivered a letter, signed by 47 bishops and more than 500 members of the clergy, to the Prime Minister’s constituency office in Witney yesterday.”

The Oxford Mail implied that the delivery was successful; however, on Tuesday 22nd April 2014 The Independent reported:

“David Cameron’s constituency office has come under fire for calling the police on the Bishop of Oxford and Reverend Hebden as they attempted to present him with an open letter on food poverty.”
“…However, despite David Cameron’s Witney office expecting their visit, they were barred from presenting the letter and instead greeted by three police officers.”

Two stories that present ‘events’ in quite different ways.

We are fortunate that this ‘living history’ can be followed up and researched far more easily than the distant past.
History is much, much more than strings of dates and so called facts, it can provide the tools for ways of thinking about things. The contention here is that history needs to be made relevant to a wider audience – not for the ability to regurgitate known ‘facts’ and someone’s idea of important dates, but for the critical thinking skills required in historical research and interpretation, skills that should be passed on as widely as possible.
Rather than using history as a dry subject to bludgeon minds into submission, it should be presented in ways to provide tools that sharpen the mind and, without wishing to be too florid, make understood the relevance of:

Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past

…and the importance of historical societies in relation to that.

Imagine yourself if you will, 100 years in the future…

Historian A has a copy of the archives of The Oxford Mail.
Historian B has a copy of the archives of The Independent.

So, as a matter of historical perspective, did the Bishop of Oxford’s letter get delivered or did it not?

K Gunter

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