‘The past is a foreign country…let’s visit it!’
The history that we know and love is the stuff of events: both earth-shattering or trivial, from the sublime to the ridiculous: from the execution of King Louis XVI by guillotine during the French Revolution, to Napoleon’s lovelorn letters to Josephine; from the Battle of Waterloo to the plans by Hippies to levitate the Pentagon.
It is also the ‘story’ – what is referred to as the ‘Historical Narrative’ – of the great conflicts of the past, the ‘clash of titans’ – between Churchill and Hitler, Stalin and Trotsky; Kennedy and Khrushchev – that have shaped the world as we know it today and continues to impact on the way it evolves in the future.
History used to be about learning dates and facts. A generation ago, we had to rote learn the names of the Governors of the Cape, the causes of the Great Trek and constitutional changes such as the Statute of Westminster. Parents today will remember learning about Hertzog and Smuts, the Pact and Fusion governments and the Gold Standard. No more. History has changed beyond all recognition and the ‘past is not what it used to be’.
In the Roedean classroom today, History is concerned with the world in all its richly-textured multidimensionality. It ranges over society, culture, ideas, representation and interpretation, economy and politics and more. It covers the full breadth and range of humanity across all continents and ages. By studying the past, we develop a range of research skills and sophisticated analytical thinking that are vital to the careers of the future. Thomas Friedman (2007) identifies these ‘new careers’ of the 21st Century as: ‘collaborators’; ‘orchestrators’, ‘synthesizers’, ‘leveragers’, ‘adapters’ and ‘versatilists’. History provides us with all these vital skills.
History also addresses Howard Gardner’s ‘Five Minds’ identified as crucial to thinking in the 21st Century. These are: the ‘Disciplinary Mind’: the mastery of major schools of thought; the ‘Synthesizing Mind’: the ability to integrate ideas from different disciplines into a coherent whole; the Creating Mind: the capacity to uncover and clarify new problems; the ‘Respectful Mind’: awareness of and appreciation for differences among human beings and human groups and the ‘Ethical Mind: fulfillment of one’s responsibilities as a worker and as a citizen.
History helps us to understand our origins, how we came to be where we are today and to make informed predictions of the future. As the great Bob Marley once sang ‘If you know your history, then you would know where you coming from’. Scenario planners draw heavily on the historical past to make educated projections of likely developments in a year, decade or in a century’s time. Rather than drawing merely on the current world as sociologists, political scientists and international relations analysts do; historians draw upon all previous societies so that we can better understand who we are and where we are going. That is why, with History, you have the whole worlds in your hands.