History: Fact or Opinion?

History nowadays seems to be more focused on the opinions of historians rather than the cold hard facts of history. I think that it’s disgusting that people can’t name, for example, the year that the First World War started or the year of the Battle of Hastings. History should be about facts – everyone should be able to name the British monarchs in order from the Battle of Hastings onwards. I must admit that I can’t quite, but I think that’s a failing of the school system rather than me. I’m intending to learn them all.

Site of the Battle of Hastings 1066.
Site of the Battle of Hastings 1066.

I feel that reading and memorising historians’ opinions isn’t as important and beneficial as actually learning the facts of history. I think that knowing the key opinions is important, and writing historiography essays can also be very beneficial, but the basis of history is facts and details. In some ways, children’s school textbooks are more useful in this manner than scholarly texts, which do focus on opinions. But textbooks tend to spread out the facts which kids should learn.

Ambrose Bierce describes history as “an account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.” I agree that history is mostly written by rulers and those who win, but I don’t think that history is unimportant – on the contrary, I think that history is incredibly important because only by understanding and accepting the past can we understand the present and influence the future. I don’t think that accounts of historical events are false (unless they are written to be that way) but I think that, particularly in areas where there is a lack of evidence, historians do have to use imagination, although it should be made clear where this is the case. Until midway through the twentieth century, history was largely political, and it is only recently that social, religious, economic and intellectual history have come into fashion, so to speak. Until then, history was written by the rulers and the politicians.

Contrarily, Aldous Huxley writes “that men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” People need to learn from the mistakes that have been made before, and only by looking at fact rather than opinions can we discern what is important to the present and future. For example, Henry VIII was very focused on the fact that England had never had a successful female ruler – the Empress Matilda was the only disastrous example. However, we learnt from Elizabeth I (the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Golden Age, etc) that women can rule successfully and Victoria and Elizabeth II have built on this image. Hence, we learnt from the past.

The great Roman philosopher Cicero said this about history: “[It] is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity.”

Mid-first-century bust of Cicero in the Musei Capitolini in Rome.
Mid-first-century bust of Cicero in the Musei Capitolini in Rome.

History does testify to your age, particularly when things are being studied in history lessons that you can remember. I’m a bit young for this to happen, but my mum and dad laughed when I said that we were studying the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and they could remember it happening. History does affect how we see things now. I know from my own experience that if something happens in the world, there is almost always something that has already happened that you can link it to.

Can anyone else connect to any of these quotes, or others? And what do you think about history? Should it be based on historians’ quotes or should it be, as I believe, learning facts?

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