The past is a foreign country

Hi everyone!

So, I’m taking a bit of a risk with this blog post, and writing about history. Seeing as how this was my degree topic, and how I tend to blog off the cuff thoughts, I’m sure what I’m about to write is all explained, analysed and debunked by someone much cleverer than me. If any of my lecturers see this… Yeah… Sorry…
Also – bear with – there is some cool stuff after a paragraph or two of introduction.
I’ve spent the last 4 days at NUS’ “Lead and Change” – their flagship officer development programme, designed to take new sabbs on a journey – giving them knowledge, skills, and self-awareness. Having taken the course last year, I can attest that it is pretty amazing. I learnt a lot, and it really helped me develop over the last year. So to be there again, one year on, taking part in a second year stream, but still surrounded by new officers, was really interesting. Towards the end of the course, I was an observer on fibchester – an intense simulation of some of things that exec teams might face throughout their year, done over 5 hours. I watched as a team of new officers tried to cope with unending, unwinnable situations (think Kobayashi Maru from Star Trek). The next day, I gave feedback – and to do this I spent a lot of time thinking about my time on the course. Was I really like that? Did I make the same mistakes? Did my team have similar experiences?
In history, there is a theory, much debated, that the past is a foreign country. Some say we should not judge a previous historical period by our values, and we should not interpret evidence with our hindsight, as humanity has evolved and changed. Others argue that to disassociate ourselves with the past undermines the whole purpose of studying history. There are other people who say other things, but I’m not sure I was paying loads of attention when we discussed this…
And yet – sometimes the past is not as distant as we might think. When studying Margaret Thatcher, my class didn’t just read historical reports, but watched videos from the period, both factual and humourous. Audio recordings exist of events throughout the 21st Century. But often it is the earliest examples of modern methods for recording events that are the most interesting. If you search hard enough, there are some great colour photographs from World War Two.
And now, with technology and the internet, a sort of time machine has developed. A group of talented designers have started editing historical photographs, literally bringing colour to history. It brings to life just how recent recent history is (hmm… that’s a strange sentence. You get what I mean, right?) Seeing the past so clearly, so vividly, deludes us into thinking that these photos could have been taken yesterday. It sparks us off thinking about where this photo was taken, why it was taken, what the subjects were thinking about, what they believed in, what the culture of the period was.
Indeed, often, this can be truly surprising. One of my favourite shows at the Edinburgh Fringe is “Blues!” – a history of the Blues in an hour. They open by challenging the historical convention that Blues music is completely male dominated, pointing out that in the first 10 years or so, the vast majority of recordings were of female singers – to the extent that male vocalists found it almost impossible to break into the scene. Take, for example, “Hound Dog”. By Elvis Presley, right? Nope. Big Momma Thornton.
And then there’s one final aspect of the past that is almost impossible to comprehend – our own. I’d like to show you a TedX video, introduced to me last year at Lead and Change, that has had a profound impact on the way I see the world. I won’t give the game away, but it’s amazing how an event shrouded by the mists of memory changed the world.
Think how many “lollipop moments” you’ve had – both that you’ve experienced, and those that you’ve created. Every day we are changing the world – and every day becomes history, instantly. Whilst it might not instantly become a foreign country, think back to your earliest memories – do these seem to be part of the world that you inhabit today? And then think to the future – what future do you want to see for yourself? What future do you want to see for the world? What values and acceptable practices will we look down on in 20 years time? And critically – how will you write your own history?

One thought on “The past is a foreign country

  1. I often think this about the arts. People can be very disparaging about “modern” culture e.g. pop music, video games etc.

    Retrospectively however, each age people have been disparaging about whatever was “new” in their age. People thought Shakespeare's plays were popular nonsense in the 1590s, thought Jazz was rubbish in the 1920s and thought film could never be art in the 1940s, yet were continually proved wrong – yet we never approach future developments as if these things had actually happened.

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