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Why it is vital to learn history


18 January 2015

Every individual's identity consists of his memories of his life. In the same way, what makes a group of individuals into a nation is their collective memory of their history. That is why the study of history is so vital.

Accordingly I made this the theme for my twenty-third "Thought for the Week" given on BBC Radio Manchester earlier today.

The text is reproduced below.

Thought for the week

“If only I had known at the age of 15 what I know now!”

At some time, most of us have said something like that. For me, the age of 15 was almost 50 years ago. Tomorrow I will share with teenagers in Warrington what I have learned in the 50 years since then.

Some of it is obvious. The more books and quality newspapers you read, the more you know. We learn from our successes. We learn even more from our failures and near disasters.

To paraphrase the Danish founder of existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard, “life can only be lived forwards, but it is understood backwards.”

If you ask about the real me, it is not my body but my brain. In reality, I am my memories.

The same is true of nations. The British people are not just a random collection of individuals who happen to live on this island. We are a collective “us”.

What is it that makes us one people? It is the collective memory of our history. That applies whether your ancestors have lived in Britain since the Stone Age, or if you, like me, came to this country from abroad.

Together we remember great moments in our history such as Magna Carta whose 800 anniversary we will celebrate this June. Together we remember not so great moments in our history such as the slave trade.

Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, said that “history is bunk.” He was wrong. After English and Mathematics, History is the most important subject we learn in school. Knowing our history tells us who we are as a people, just as my memories make me the person I am.

That is why, in every country, what schools teach in History is fought over more than any other subject. That is why governments care so much about History teaching.

If I lose my memories, I will have lost my identity. Something just as bad happens to a people if they forget their history, or never learn it. They stop being one nation and become just a random collection of individuals who happen to live in the same country.


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