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.

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