Original post 7/12/2006
Another Damn Medievalist pointed me to the Observers posting of this speech by UK Historian Stephen Fry about why history matters. (Fry is promoting the "History Matters - Pass it on" campaign that is currently underway in the UK). Fry's speech is a very accessible introduction to the sort of high-brow, jargon laden debate in which historians engage all of the time. That is why it's so important. Hopefully, the discussion that Fry has instigated amongst historians will be just as accessible. (In answer to Ralph's question: Yes, I'd say this is worthy of a Cliopatria Symposia) .
Jeffrey Cohen at In The Middle solicited his readers to explain why history mattered to them, which led to a discussion of the different motivations for why Americans and British study the Middle Ages. Cohen admited that Tolkien was a motivation for his entrance into the field of Medieval History. The same goes for me, but my interest in history preceded my exposure to Tolkien and other Fantasy authors. (Aside: I used to read a lot of "high Fantasy", but now I'm too busy reading "real" stuff to spend time on reading fiction...I should change that. Historians can learn a lot about the craft of writing from works of fiction). For that matter, I also liked comic books (what 11 year old boy didn't?) and fantasy movies. Looking back, Conan ("To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women!") probably had an influence on my interest in those Early M.A. barbarians. However, I'd have to say that the "tipping point" for my entry into formal historical study was genealogy.
To begin with, I learned that my last name wasn't always the last name of my patrilineal line. In fact, "Comtois" is a "dit" name. "Dit" is basically the French equivalent of the English "aka" (also known as). The "real" last name of my paternal ancestors was Gilbert dit Comtois: "Gilbert known as Comtois" or "Gilbert the Comtois". As for the name "Comtois," it means "of, or being from Franche Comte," a historic region in Eastern France. "Franche Comte" means "Free County" and it was historically known as the "Free County of Burgundy". Some time during the late 19th century, while my ancestors and many other French-Canadians were making the seasonal transit between Quebec and the New England textile mills, the "Gilbert" got dropped by those in my direct line. (Some of my "way back" uncles kept the "Gilbert" instead, so I could have just as easily have been Marc Gilbert as Marc Comtois).
As I was tracing my patrilineal line back through New England, Quebec and finally to Besancon in Franche Comte (now Besancon is part of the Department of Doubs), I also studied the history of those places. As I went further and further back, I finally bumped into the Burgundians of the Early M.A. and the Sequani of Antiquity. Before I knew it, I was taking a Grad level Medieval History class at Providence College and considering going for an MA in my "free" time. The rest is history (I couldn't resist!).
I believe that my story can serve as an example of how personalized interest can lead to deeper historical learning. My initial interest in history was antiquarian--I just liked old stuff (still do). Then I became interested in not only my particular family history, but also the larger historical forces that shaped the decisions they made and, subsequently, their lives. In this way, I gained a deeper understanding of both my personal past and the past of my country.
Well written and accessible history can make people realize that they have a stake in the past. The success of popular histories, particularly biographies, in recent years can attest to that. But even these histories appeal only to those who already have a curiosity about history in and of itself. What about the rest of the people who don't neither have an intrinsic interest in history nor think that history is important to them?
Part of this attitude may be because the "average Joe" doesn't have anyone "famous" in his past. This may be an unfortunate side effect of history as biography. Of course there are many historical biographies about average folks living during compelling times, but these biographies often serve as an introduction to a previously unknown person. Without a historical radar, so to speak, how can someone not looking for such a history know it exists?
This brings me back to genealogy and how it led me to history. As I said, I was already a consumer of history, so I'm not a perfect example of a disinterested person suddenly having his historical fire sparked by personal interest. But there is something about the "appeal to the personal" that historians may be able use as a toehold in the public conscience. Perhaps in our "me" culture, the easiest path to a more widespread acknowledgment of the importance of history is to explain to people that everyone has their own history. It's there, you just have to take ownership of it.
Genealogy is just one avenue that could be used to pique those personal interests. Pop culture is another with historical movies and tv shows. ("So you like this movie, guess what is based on?"). These are not new ideas--the History Channel(s) and others devote hours of programming to just this sort of thing. But taken together, they can be viewed as parts of a whole: an approach to history that I'd call historical consumerism. Find out what people are interested in, and then deliver a little history with it. To quote Mary Poppins, "A spoonful of sugar..."