Is history important?

No matter how entertaining I find history, I wrestle with the idea that I should find history important.

I enjoy history as a pursuit, as an entertainment. I love reading historical books, researching my armies, watching historical movies etc etc. I love revelling in former times, which always feel much more exciting times to live (though much more uncomfortable too!).

But do I find history important?  No.  Knowing the exact truth of minor details of history won’t have any effect on today’s lives, unlike  other subjects such as medicine and science, where the difference between getting it exactly right and wrong can have huge impacts.

Some might say that the knowledge of history is important to shape and engage people of today.  I think that is true in a sense.  But it isn’t the knowledge of the exact details of history that shape and engage people – it is the myths passed down mouth-to-mouth and though TV, movies, novels, popular books and so on.

I contend that people’s views on, say, the Napoleonic Wars, are shaped by the myths passed down, and any effect that knowledge of the Napoleonic Wars has on modern life is based on those myths, not on the exact truth of details.  In other words, ‘Story’ has much more effect than ‘Hi-Story’.

So knowing exactly when Prussian General Zeiten sent a message to the Duke of Wellington  before the Battle of Waterloo, or who invented the artillery bricole  (both subjects of ongoing acrimonious debates between some military historians) are not important.  Knowing one way or the other won’t change the lives of me or anyone else on this planet. All they are is … interesting.

Yes, the historian’s job might be to find the truth (if they can!).  But I think that is no more important to humanity than a novelist writing a fiction book.  It is still fun, colourful, adds dimension to our lives etc – but it is not important.

This ethos of mine to the importance of history  transfers into my ethos to historical wargaming:  fun, period flavour, storyline, romance, colour, atmosphere, happily based on myth – but let’s not get too hooked on detail!

8 thoughts on “Is history important?

  1. Nice engaging post Roly.

    Like you, I, and probably most wargamers, are fascinated by history, especially the military details, and alongside side that, the kings and queens of the relative period you are intersted in, just to help focus that time in history you are ‘studying’.

    As a schoolboy, history was one of my favourtie subjects, so long as the focus was on the above, and wasnt droning on, and boring me to death about the agricultural or industrial revolutions . However, inspite of this and coming 3rd in the year in exam results, I dropped the subject, infavour of geography when it came to deciding what subjects to study at ‘O’ level…(I’m showing my age!).

    Simply because I could see more ‘use’ in Geography than History…, in terms of future general useful knowledge or perhaps career and job prospects. I couldnt imagine much career use for History…

    The sciences were where I persued my career…

  2. Good topic of discussion guys. As one who has spent the last 8 years indulging my mid-life crisis of studying history full-time, I think history is important. It is a study of human nature and how individuals can influence events. In theory, by studying history we should be able to understand the achievements and failures of humankind, and therefore avoid repeating disastrous situations such as the rise of Facism and dictatorships that lead to massive loss of lives. Obviously, such situations have continued to occur in the world but modern western culture has certainly benefited from studying and understanding its past. In regard to wargaming, I’m not a stickler for one hundred percent accuracy, but studying a certain era does give us a platform from which we can get a feel for our periods of interest and fight our miniature battles in a similar and fun way.

  3. Hoi, I am a Dutch teacher in History and one of the Historians over here has said that history as a science exists thanks to our intrinsic interest in our (own) history: so you are totally allowed to both enjoy it and find it interesting or important. Besides who decides whose version of history is true…

    Cheers Sander

    P.S. great blog!

  4. As a retired infantry officer, I found military history important. If you are going to be a professional, you have to study the profession.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Neil.

      But did knowing who invented the artillery bricole, or what time Wellington received a despatch at Waterloo, ever help you in your profession? I can’t see either of those being important. Very interesting, yes – but not important.

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