We must beware of history heroes

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A student has just asked me an unexpectedly difficult question. They’re always doing this: it’s one of the reasons I do what I do. This one asked me who my hero was in history.

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It’s a reasonable question. It ought to have a simple answer. BBC History Magazine has a feature every month on this or that well-known person’s historical hero. When interviewed, these people presumably don’t stand about saying ‘Um’, as I did. After all, everyone has a hero. Except me, apparently.

Actually, I’ve suspected for a long time that I look at the past rather differently from most people. I noticed this during the debate over the National Curriculum proposals for history, way back in 1990. Quite a lot of people argued that history in schools ought to be about the heroes of the past. Even those who seemed to disagree generally turned out only to disapprove of the particular heroes who were on offer.

What they wanted was to substitute their own. I was rather startled to find that other people had a sort of moral barometer, which they used to measure the worth, or lack of it, of historical figures.

I don’t think like that at all. I do regard an understanding and knowledge of history as crucially important. I love reading it and writing it. I’ve spent my life teaching it. But I don’t seem to get emotionally involved, and certainly not to the extent of having a hero – or indeed a heroine.

I once wrote an article about the Yorkists for BBC History Magazine in which I was incautious enough to state that, so far as I could see, the available evidence suggested that Richard III had murdered the princes in the Tower. That was all I said. I couldn’t see that this was such a big deal. After all, his brother Edward had murdered Henry VI, for which no one nowadays particularly takes him to task.

I was perfectly willing to be convinced that I was wrong; all anyone needed to do was to supply me with evidence. But almost immediately I received an outraged letter from the Richard III Society, which virtually accused me of libel [actually, you can’t libel the dead]. What was puzzling was that it really mattered to these people; I had clearly offended them in a deep and personal way. Richard, you see, was their hero.

As a history teacher, I don’t feel it’s part of my task to take sides, though I accept that this is a minority view. I leave that to the pupils, should they wish to do so. This saves me from what I imagine must be a thoroughly exhausting way of approaching the past. Just imagine having to choose the hero, presumably on moral grounds, of the Scanian War of the 1670s. [I promise you that I picked this example at random, though you’re not likely to teach Swedish history in schools nowadays. They don’t teach that much of it even in Sweden].

Necessity makes strange bedfellows. In these days of crisis for history in schools, I’d normally be quite keen to enlist the support of just about anybody who thought history mattered. But I’d be cautious about these special-interest groups, because it seems to me that it’s not history that matters to them: it’s their own view of this or that historical personage which matters.

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But I might be wrong. I’m sure someone will tell me if so. I’m already expecting a letter from the Karl XI Association in Stockholm, denouncing me for my lack of partiality over the Scanian War.