Losing the Past

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

As a historical fiction writer, I was depressed to read the op-ed, Lost in the Past, in the New York Times last week, on how little people know of history today. Even more horrifying is the fact that this ‘historical illiteracy’ appears to infect leaders across our society – from politicians, to corporate leaders, media personalities and educators.

While I don’t intend this blog post to be a rant against any of the more egregious offenders on this score, I do feel that on this Memorial Day weekend we should reflect on the importance of knowing and understanding history. As a writer, as much as I often have fun with historical facts in my stories (and sometimes even create alternate histories), I recognize I have an obligation to my readers to do my research thoroughly and to represent the past as honestly (and as correctly) as I can. It’s frustrating to realize how much of history is ignored today (as the NYT article points out even the History Channel now does very little history!) and how easy it is for many people to forget the lessons of the past (and, sadly, doom history to repeat itself).

Is the reason we are becoming more ignorant of the past because people think history is boring? Is it too much effort to learn the real facts as to what happened? Is it because in the age of the Internet people find it easier to throw out terms like ‘Nazi’, ‘fascist’ or ‘communist’ without really understanding what they truly mean (or at least what they once meant)? 

As a fiction writer, I feel strongly that novels are one of the best ways to illuminate the past – using a story can enlighten and engage (and, hopefully, provide a little palatable history along the way). The popularity of Downton Abbey suggests to me that many people are still interested in how people lived in the past (albeit perhaps in a soap opera version) so why is it that so many young people don’t even know what the ‘Great War’ was? 

When I read the newspaper each morning and my kids ask me about what is happening in the world, I am struck by how much my answer relies on me providing a historical background to what is occurring. The past illuminates and explains so much of what is going on in our world today, and I’m truly saddened at how little this seems to count anymore. 

So on this Memorial Day weekend, perhaps you can give me some more cheerful advice on how we can reinvigorate the study of history. How do you think, as readers and writers, this could occur? Do you find novels or non-fiction the most enjoyable way to ‘learn’ about the past? How can we get kids, particularly, to become enthusiastic about studying history? 

For my own children, there is always the awesome ‘Horrible Histories’ series of books and TV shows.  This clip is one of my absolute favourites – and I’m going to share it just because it goes to show that, even when ‘bending’ the facts for the sake of humor, history can be relevant, interesting and, dare I say, it…cool. If only more people could see it this way.

24 thoughts on “Losing the Past

  1. You’re so right, Clare. Without a study of history there can be no true wisdom…and that’s why we have so little true wisdom in our citadels of power and so-called institutions of “higher learning.” It takes effort to acquire wisdom, but that interferes with binge drinking. One can graduate from university now without taking a required course in Western Civ.

    For serious minded adults, and parents of high school and college age children, I cannot recommend strongly enough The Lessons of History by the late, great Prof. Rufus Fears.

  2. Horrible Histories is a wonderful way for the kids to learn about history. Big advocate of using humour to teach, but it must be done well. Henry VIII was done very well. Thanks for sharing, I’ll be checking out more on that site.

    • HH is my all time favourite show for kids. I have laughed till I’ve cried and my boys actually learned a lot alongside the laughs.

  3. Great questions. Great post, Clare.

    I wonder if some of the lack of interest in history comes from the way it is taught in high schools, with “boring” textbooks and emphasis on memorization of dates. I know it failed to catch my enthusiasm.

    On the other hand, when history has a purpose of entertaining (novel), or learning our personal past (genealogy), or the study of any personal pursuit (golf, guns, military, cars, etc), it then becomes a means to an end and suddenly very interesting.

    Maybe historical fiction writers could convince educators to use a series of novels that would gain students interest and become a framework on which to hang the other necessary facts.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

    • Thanks Steve, I do think that there has been some progress with books like ‘dear diary’ (I think that’s what the stories for girls are called). I agree though that history has can be pretty ‘unpalatable’ the way it’s taught. I loved it at school but really I credit my parents (they are history buffs). My mum was a history teacher and her enthusiasm and her love of history made all the difference. I worry that now there are fewer and fewer people with this same enthusiasm to pass on that excitement and love of history to the next generation.

  4. Great post. As I put up a photo of my grandfather in uniform for Memorial Day, I realized that in a month, it will be the 100th anniversary of the incident that started WWI. My father’s life encompassed the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.

    I live in a place steeped with history. The residents fall into two camps. Those who live and breathe it (NEVER argue history with a woman in a hoop skirt, You. Will. Lose.) And those who would bulldoze all those tacky old buildings and replace them with an outlet mall.

    I’m not a fanatic, but I tend toward the former. It boggles me when someone doesn’t know basic history. As a kid, fiction helped fuel that. I started with Laura Ingalls Wilder and moved up to James Michener in short order. If something interests me in fiction, I look it up and learn about it.

    We are barraged by information that seems to carry very little knowledge. I don’t know if it is worse now than previous generations, or if the Internet just makes it more obvious.

    I am dabbling in historical fiction myself. A romance set in an under-served portion of history, the Burning Kansas era of the Civil War. Think Romeo and Juliet (he’s from Missouri, she’s from Kansas) set against Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence.

    And for those who say the Japanese imprisonment in WWII was an isolated incident. Google “General Order 11.” That will be the backdrop of book 2 in the series.

    Keep it up and great post! Terri

    • Thanks Terri! I feel sometimes like I’m beating on a drum trying to make people realise just how important it is to know at least a little history! Good luck with the new project – sounds cool.

  5. I found my interest in history only after school. I was going to a Soviet school, but I suspect that history lessons in western schools are also mostly full of facts and not so much of “humans”. What I mean, is that true personal stories that can inspire children would be great. The other thing is to have elder children read historical novels. Now, I just recall that I started liking history in my last year of the school when I read “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy. What I love about historical fiction is to find out at the end of the book which parts of the book are based on facts and which are not. And I am sure that for kids it will be also fun to gasp when they realize how much of the thrilling action inside the book was true.
    I hope there is this kind of historical fiction for younger kinds. I will definitely do some research on this for my son as soon as he is able to read. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I love the same thing about reading historical fiction – and some authors do a great job of blending fact with fiction. I’m really hoping my kids continue to enjoy history and can find some great books to immerse themselves in.

  6. Clare– a timely if depressing post for Memorial Day. Thank you.
    The problem you take up is fundamental. The general state of ignorance in our country about our own history, let alone other people’s is or should be a source of national concern. Other developed countries see to it their schools provide a basic understanding of national history. Here, an emphasis on Western civilization is often viewed as politically incorrect. This makes no sense: By its very nature, democracy requires an electorate that is capable of critical thinking, of historical perspective. Someone I know and like recently revealed in passing that she thinks Brazil shares a border with Germany. I had no idea how to correct her, and didn’t. it just seemed futile.

    • Oh dear…the Brazil incident is, sadly, very reflective of the current level of geographical and historical awareness here. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me questions which clearly show they have mistaken Australia for Austria…

  7. I remember history being a boring subject in school. It doesn’t seem as relevant to young people as other subjects. Perhaps using more multimedia would capture their interest, novels and movies and analytic study rather than rote facts. Geography, as Barry mentioned, is another problem area. But I suspect it’s the methods of teaching that make the difference. Today I love reading historical novels and watching period dramas.

    • I do think school is critical to instilling a love of history (or, usually not instilling it). All too often it becomes a matter of memorising dates and facts rather than looking at causes, ramifications and long-term effects. Maybe if we emphasised these, people would see the relevance of history today.

  8. I got my bachelor’s degree in history, and I am also appalled at the lack of basic knowledge of history among the general population. I also wish that schools would use story to teach history, so that kids and adults can relate to real people from the past. It’s one of the reasons I still enjoy reading historical novels (and yes, watching Downton Abbey).

  9. I love Downton Abbey:) and I love how historical novels can totally suck you into the past and see how people lived, loved, and thought.

  10. I think there is a history relating to stuff that happened a year ago out to about twenty years ago. Then all the rest is ancient history. That’s the way the average individual sees it, if they see that. I think most people are busy re-sorting and editing the “experiential” movie in their head. I put that in quotes because this includes stuff they didn’t actually experience in terms of being there or even watching it on TV news. Inside those quote marks I include stuff people see in movies and TV shows and what they read. Whether or not any of this is true, let alone fair and accurate is another burning issue. I do think the history bucket is about 20 years deep and that’s it. And then the bucket narrows down like a funnel or the tail of a comet. And then according to the personal-movie-in-your-head department, the timelines are all jumbled up, too.

    When I studied anthropology I was fascinated by the process of “fictive kinship” in tribal societies. One minute some dude is your prisoner and the next, following a wave of the magic wand, he’s your brother or son. So it goes with our view of history, I’m afraid. We embellish and cherry-pick to make it fit the movie in our head.

    Today we have the Freedom of Information Act and many countries have opened up their files (at least “some” of their files) to historians. Supposedly this has been done in Moscow. Now academics are able to look at events from the other side of the table. There’s some interesting stuff they are finding out. When, however, the full information will be released about extraterrestrial contact is something only Basil might divulge—if we’re nice to him.

    • Well, sir interesting you should ask. I was actually just rooting around the crawl space this morning with my research team (the Leprechauns) for some documents my grandfather had left me when Berthold held something up.

      “Basil? Look at this,” he walked over to me with a box of old pictures. The top of the box was marked with an odd symbol that looked something like an arrow with a heart through it. (I know that sounds backwards but like I said, it was an odd symbol.)

      I pulled out a couple of pictures and wouldn’t you know it there was grandpa in a 60’s style military uniform chatting with these two rather tall men in metallic robes, couldn’t tell what color the robes were as it was a black & white picture you know. But anyhow, there’s grandpa chatting away in front of this rather large cigar shaped thingamabobber with stairs going up into it.

      “Oooh,” says Berthold as he looks over his handful of pictures. Fillii and Gnillii draw closer behind him and get all wide eyed looking at the pic. Then they all looked up at me.


      “Uh…here,” Berthold hands me the picture and when I take it they all three take a step back, never taking their eyes off me.

      I glance down at the image. This one shows one of the tall shiny guys handing grandpa what looks like an egg about the size of a rugby ball. Right there on the side of it stenciled in that standard military style font:

      Human Type Z
      Batch #28/s – MALE
      Hatch Date 8-19-68 (earth)

      Under the image a bit of scrawled handwriting:
      Soon to be a Happy Grandpa!

      Most curious indeed. The Leprechaun’s have continued to act strangely toward me all day.

  11. I love history. Had an awesome history teacher who apparently got promoted right along with my class, got to enjoy Mr. Randy Hughes’s vibrant and exciting history classes from the 6th grade through the 10th. In high school he started the class by passing around the day’s Far Side cartoon from the paper.

    Being a church teacher and scout leader has enabled me to pass on that love of history to hundreds of youth over the years via stories and sermons and plays. I just wish there were more teachers who strove to make the past alive for the present.

  12. Hi Clare!!

    Great post I’m reading on a reflective day such as Memorial Day!!! =)

    I think historical facts get boggled down in this shame game of parents passing along the social skills and what is politically correct to their children who live in a different world and who have to play this walking on eggshells game to make it in a world that is failing on a level with which I’m not familiar.


    My husband and I drove through our neighborhood today because he was curious to see how many homes were flying the American flag on Memorial Day. It was sad, there were 7 others besides ours.

    We saw college flags and one flag with some rabbit on it that I didn’t know the representation, but everywhere on Facebook, people where announcing things like “It’s not a BBQ today” then posting pictures of some kid crying because his father is gone.

    Celebration has gotten muddied up today with the meaning of what it is to sacrifice and what is to celebrate. We celebrate those today who have given their lives, we don’t use tragedy to make people ashamed of our past. It’s about respect for our past and the people who suffered so that we are where we are today.

    Respect is what we should provide to one another. Not suppressing history so that respect is marred or hidden in some way. It is what it is.

  13. I’ve always been intimidated by historical fiction stories. The necessary research seemed daunting to me, but of late I’ve been fascinated by TV shows focused on historical periods with either a literary bent or a reimagined premise. The much anticipated Outlander series by Gabaldon will no doubt revitalize history. Shows like BBC’s Ripper Street, Penny Dreadful on Showtime have focused on Victorian London. Fox’sSleepy Hollow has elements of colonial history during the revolutionary war. And TURN on AMC delves into George Washington’s Culper spy ring. These shows pique viewers interest to rediscover aspects or facts around the storylines, a resurgence of historical interest.

    As for me, I am tackling my first historical short story that will be part of a time travel anthology. I’ll be focused on Victorian London late 1800s, so the daunting research has become my latest challenge.

    Nice post, Clare.

  14. You make some excellent points, Clare. Knowing the world’s history is critical for not repeating the same stupid mistakes again. I really enjoy historical fiction, and found myself appalled recently at the slaughter of innocent young men that occurred during the Civil War, for example. Hopefully stupidity like that will never be repeated!

  15. History was always my favoritest subject in school, and I’ve read and written historical fiction almost exclusively for most of my life. If I’m not reading historical, then I’m reading books which were written so long ago they’re now historical. I truly never understood why so many people whine and complain about history being bored, stupid, and irrelevant. I live and breathe history, to the point where I’m far more interested in the past than the present. The majority of my hobbies and interests are historical or about old stuff.

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