Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bobbing along on the waters of ignorance

In a column contending for the legitimacy of historical fiction, a celebrated practitioner, Hilary Mantel, also makes a case for knowing some history:
.... It is true that in the days when statesmen and generals learned history (probably tables of kings and queens by rote) they were not conspicuously good at avoiding the errors of their predecessors; each turn of events seemed to strike them with the force of novelty and, startled, they would proceed to cock it up all over again. Henry Ford's contention that "history is more or less bunk" is perhaps not as crass a statement as it is often taken to be, because a good deal of what we think we know about the past is unverified tradition and unexamined prejudice. Tables of kings and queens, though not very useful, are at least verifiable, but no one learns that kind of history any more, and much of what we retain about the past is a collection of factoids, received opinions and accumulated moral judgments. This argues for better history, rather than less history. To try to engage with the present without engaging with the past is to live like a dog or cat rather than a human being; it is to bob along on the waters of egotism, solipsism and ignorance.

History offers us vicarious experience. It allows the youngest student to possess the ground equally with his elders; without a knowledge of history to give him a context for present events, he is at the mercy of every social misdiagnosis handed to him. .... [more]

Booker winner Hilary Mantel on historical fiction | Books | The Guardian

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