Why “Great Man” History matters

Its been a while since I put thoughts on screen. In part this has been because of the arrival of school summer holidays, and a wonderful 10 day visit from my nephew and niece. All this has taken a but of the wind out of me, and has meant a slow restart to the blog. In this I am thankful to Ubiquitous Rat over on Cool Religion for challenging me to to write an introductory article on atheism. That not only woke me up, it made me realise what a difficult subject atheism is to introduce.

Anyway, onto this weeks bog; and it is a big one. “Great Man” history is a traditionalist form of historical research. Historians as a whole tend to prefer written archives as a source of material for research and as you go back through time, writing becomes more elitist, more restricted and more specialised; as such only the rich and famous could afford to be written about. In addition, much writing was done by the clergy and, if we are lucky, the odd, educated clerk at court. As such we know so little about day to day life in medaeval times; in fact we know far more about the day to day life of Romans than we do for almost 500-700 years of British History.

“Great Man” history (GM) is still very much prevalent today, but in a different form. The liberalisation of History, the influence of Marxist theory, the growth of sociological studies and the impact of Post-Modernism has meant a huge decline in GM but it is still out there in the form of biographies and auto-biographies. As such there is not so much focus from academia on GM, and it is left to amateur historians and professional writers to explore these people (not that that is an issue).

There has been a huge explosion in popular history these days. From programmes like “Who do you think you are” encouraging an explosion in geneology, to books like “Sharpe” and even “The Da Vinci Code” (I know, I promise I won’t do it again). This has been driven by amateur historians and professional writers – again, no argument from me, but it has meant, I feel, that Historians have missed out on an opportunity.

With media driven shock stories of pupils not being able to identify key British Historical moments, the drive towards multicuturalism, the feel that society is changing almost daily, it is easy to think that British History is being eroded, undermined and forgotten. Again the media has been great, especially during the Blair years, of filling how minds with stories of appeasement, not celebrating our country’s past in order not to offend other nations and cultures; this could be seen as part of the drive to get British people to accept a European/Global identity instead of a national one. If this was the case, then indeed severing that link between the current society and its past history would be essential, but that might lie more within the bounds of a conspiracy theory.

So how does GM history fit into all this. Lets revisit my first point; over the entire course of this island’s history we know more about the central characters than we do of anything else. So for a start we are dealing with a better quality of source material than any other even though these sources are also open to interpretation and bias. The further back we go, the smaller and less developed societies were, the better it can be argued that these people were written about because of various factors including power and control – they therefore directly contributed to the shaping of our society today. So these people have had major impacts and are of historical note. This doesn’t diminish the contributions from every person since the start of society, but the advantage is that we have so much more information about the great historical figures. While this information is as open to promotional opinion and and bias as anything it is likely to be more comprehensive, with less gaps and more detail than much of the information we would have about the peasants, working classes or many other stratas of society.

This allows us a number of benefits. The first is about the persons themselves. “Great” people tend to have characteristics that have driven them to their position. Studying these people allows us to assess these characteristics and learn from them, to better understand them and ourselves. Maslow in his “self actualisation” theory used characterstics from some of the great people from around the world (although there is more than a hint of christian ethos bias in it). So we begin to expose ourselves to the concepts of strategy, politics, wealth management, influence  etc etc and this can also be given to our children allowing them to understand some of the traits needed to achieve, and therefore possibly wresting them away from the cult of celebrity.

Another great opportunity here is about critical evaluation. We have all this information, far more than information about the rest of us mere mortals, and we can begin to cross reference and question this information, to interpret it, to critically evaluate it. Using real information, primary and secondary sources, we can encourage pupils in schools to develop critical evaluation, intepretation and extrapolation skills which are immensely valuable but often overlooked. For instance a great project would be to take William Wilberforce, the man generally accredited with the success of the anti-slavery movement in this county, and to assess the man in light of some possible recent evidence to suggest that he was a director of a company in the West Indies that was still using slave labour after it was abolished by the crown, and that he actively knew and protected it. What does this say about the man and his society? What would it have been like to have been a freshly freed slave in the UK, who discovers this information? The opportunity to reflect ourselves through these great people, critically using the information about them, looking beyond them and into the society beyond them is an amazing opportunity and insight.

The real benefit to GM History is that it is common history. Every person in British history has made some impact on our society today. Everybody who is a citizen of this country has links to every great person in this country’s history. Every decision and action made by these people, good or bad is as much a part of our society as it was the moment they were made; and this is the same for every nation on this planet. Indivdually we are as much of a product of the decisions of Nelson, Wellington, Churchill, Alfred, Edward I, Isembard KingdomBrunel, Florence Nightingale, and Margaret Thatcher as we are of our parents and their parents.

So lets ensure we don’t forget our Great Men and Women of history, and spend so long looking at the flowers in the wood that we forget the majesty of the forest, and the glory that the mighty Oak brings to it.

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