History Fridays #12 – Goodbye Terry Pratchett.

“History isn’t like that. History unravels gently, like an old sweater. It has been patched and darned many times, re knitted to suit different people, shoved in a box under the sink of censorship to be cut up for the dusters of propaganda, yet it always – eventually – manages to spring back into its old familiar shape. History has a habit of changing the people who think they are changing it. History always has a few tricks up its frayed sleeve. It’s been around a long time.”

— Terry Pratchett, Mort

Today I found out that Terry Pratchett, one of my favourite authors (as in top 5 favourite), died yesterday. Fans have known for a while that this day would come sooner than we wished, as Pratchett suffered from a rare form of early onset Alzheimers. I knew it was coming. But I didn’t expect it. I kept the continuous hope of “just one more book.” There will be one more book that comes out this year (Pratchett finished it last year). But that’s it. For real this time. And that knowledge makes me very, very sad. I have more to say about Pratchett and how his writing has influenced my understanding of story and voice. I have more to say about my love of the world that he created. The characters. But not right now. Not today.

Today I will just be sad. And I will share with you one of the many history quotes included in the Discworld series.

And I will recommend that if you haven’t read any of his works that you consider picking one up. Part of the brilliance of the series is that you can start anywhere. The world is connected, the timeline flows, but each book can also stand alone. Not sure where to start? My favourite is Going Postal. It’s also the book that introduced me to Pratchett.



History Fridays # 9

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”

— Aldous Huxley

Okay – so I know that this is not at all in keeping with this months theme. But so far the History Friday’s have been the hardest segment and it was that much harder trying to get the quotes to fit the theme of Love and Friendship. So I have branched out so that I could get back to the main theme for Friday’s which is History and thinking about history.

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History Fridays #3

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

— Rudyard Kipling, The Collected Works

I have a Masters degree in History. People have a lot of different responses when they find this out. Some people ask more question – such as what area of history I studied. A large number of people respond with some variation of “I didn’t like history because there are too many dates.” (Now I ask you is that any reason to dislike history? You wouldn’t dislike a relationship because it had too many dates would you?)

This sentence, and all of it’s variations,  hurt my history loving heart. I know that many students have been subjected to the “memorize all of these dates” method of teaching history. No part of me agrees with this method. Yes, you are going to come across dates throughout your study of history. Certain dates are important. Eventually you’re going to need to know things such as, The First World War (1914-1918) occurred after Canada began to join up and officially became the Dominion of Canada (1867), but before Canada became a mostly independent nation with the Statute of Westminster (1931). But you do not need to know these things right away. And forcing students to remember these dates above all else stifles the sense of historical curiosity.

This focus on dates and memorization and teaching only the “important” parts of history, contribute to the response I often get to the revelation that I study Canadian History. You would not believe the number of times I have heard a variation of “Canadian History. Why in the world would you want to study that. Canadian history is the most boring history out there.” <Excuse me while I go whimper in the corner>

If you knew the stories I know, you wouldn’t think Canadian history was boring. (Well, I guess you might, but at least it would have a fighting chance). The problem is that so much of the history taught in school focuses on “the boring bits” (though I have found that sometimes a boring event is actually really interesting once you start to discover the stories around it). The curriculum is often designed to force feed students key events, which are then regurgitated and forgotten. It would be so much more effective if history was taught through stories. Sure, this method of teaching history might not produce a nation of people who know all of the important dates in their history. But guess what? Neither does the current method.

Okay, so Canadians aren’t great with dates, but where is my evidence that stories would work better? I have to admit, I don’t have anything concrete, but let me ask you a question. Do you remember those “Heritage Moments” that were on television for awhile? They were kind of cheesy. But I bet there are a few bits and pieces of history that you remember from watching them (Kanata means village, anyone? “Doctor, I smell burnt toast”?). And you remember them because they were told as stories (though granted not always the best storytelling).

It is my experience that learning the stories leads to curiosity about the details. And as you read more and more about that story, and the stories that connect to it, a funny thing starts to happen. You start to remember the dates, or if not the exact dates, then a rough chronology. And then maybe you look up other events that happen around the same time and you start to place the initial story into the bigger story. Keep doing that and before you know it, you’ve learned a pretty significant amount of history. After all, history is really only one big story made up of millions and millions of smaller stories.

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History Friday’s #2

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
— George Orwell, 1984

This is one of those short quotes that has a lot in it. It’s easy to pass it off and say that this level of control does not exist today. Does not exist where you live. You may say that the Internet has allowed for the free and uncontrolled dissemination of knowledge. But while we can argue over the validity of that last statement, it does not necessarily directly impact the validity of the above quote.

Even the availability of information does not guarantee that people will access that information. People believe without questioning or examining all the time. For instance, what is the likelihood that someone will go home and research the facts of an event after watching a movie “based on a true story?” Some people will, yes. Some people will find out just which aspects have been the result of artistic license no which aspects contain truth. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that most people won’t.

Take for instance the shock so many people exhibit when it is revealed that not every single aspect of that popular auto-biography was100% true. What? They made themselves out to be bigger, better, stronger, more important, than they actually were to sell books? In our world of obviously scripted reality tv, one would think that people would be a bit more cautious in believing every sensational story that reaches their ears.

But I digress.

Control takes on more faces than “obviously evil dictator.” Yes, those types of control may be the most easily identified, but what about the control that looks benevolent? What about the control that maybe looks like freedom? The control that does not so much restrict access to information but puts forward an alternative story with seemingly subtle changes. What if it makes it very believable. A carefully constructed lie may not be able to kill the truth but it can give it a swift beating, tie it up, gag it and drop it into a hole.

I would go on, but this post is quickly getting long. As I said initially, it’s a short quote with a lot in it.

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(Because this was such a smiley topic)

History Friday’s #1

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
— L.P. Hartley

I don’t remember when I first heard this quote. I think it may have been during an undergrad History class. It is the opening line of a work of fiction, but it is an excellent source of perspective for the historian. It is important to remember that the past was a different place and, as difficult as it may be, we should resist the urge to impose our present day sensibilities and understandings on the people who lived then.

It is impossible not to view the past through a particular lenses of experience. Each historian has their own individual lens shaped and defined by the time and area in which they live and their personal history. The important thing is recognizing that we have a lens and understanding the influence it has on our understanding of the past.

My understanding of the First World War, for example, will be slightly different from yours. Variations will arise based on country – Canadian, French, German, British, Australian, American, etc. Generations will see the history of the war differently. I must write a different history than the first historians on the topic, and a historian writing in 15 or 20 years must write a different history than me. For that matter, I will write a different history than any of my peers.

Where am I going with this? If we forget that events happen within a specific time and place, we risk allowing our own bias to have too much influence and we risk getting things very wrong. The same thing happens if I go to a different country and expect everything to be the same as my home country. I will always look at the rest of the world through a Canadian lens, and that is fine. I gain nothing by insisting that the rest of the world look and behave exactly like my understanding of Canada. Notice I say my understanding of Canada? I gain nothing by insisting the past follow the same rules as the present.

This does not mean that we must condone past events or explain them all away as “just the way things were done.” But perhaps we can agree that a book that claimed to be a history of the First World War that focused only on explaining that the war was “wrong” or “barbaric” or “stupid” or “glorious” or “just” would give us a very skewed understanding of the events.

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