You’re a fool if you don’t recognise that history is the greatest subject of them all
Honest, just hear me out
Staring at the above headline as I contemplate the burning dumpster fire that is my dissertation, a deep rage builds within me.
How could anyone possibly claim that history is the greatest subject of them all? What possible future could lie in the dry, decaying scribblings of the pale, stale brigade of long dead kings and courtiers? What good could come of learning which George succeeded which Edward? Isn't it all, in that gloriously curt sneer of Henry Ford, "bunk"?
Well no, it isn't, actually. As I stand back from the rancid, festering collection of hyperbole and speculation that comprise my thesis on Thatcherism, I pause and think for a moment. If not history, then what else is there? What better subject exists to inform, entice and entertain?
I was never one of those horny-handed sons of toil drawn to the mechanics and materials of engineering nor some Breaking Bad protege able to whip up some bunsen burner magic in a minute. Biology left me cold, French m'a laissé froid and the only figures I was ever interested in were those that were long dead.
Geography's endless penchant for rocks inflicted a masochistic desire to hit my head against one repeatedly whilst every artistic painting I ever did was a surrealist nightmare. But why then history? Surely I could, like many other impractical and lethargic contemporaries, have turned my hand to Philosophy or English or even (gulp) Political Science?
Indeed I could well have done and laboured for three years under the burdens of Rousseau or Rawls or Rand. But why study dull theory or fictitious fancy when you could study the real thing? History- that living, breathing mass of iniquity and incompetence- is all the more fantastic for it actually having happened. The rich characters, the twists of fate, conflict, comedy, romance, drama- all loom bigger in this subject than in the mind of any single cod-philosopher or aspiring hack scribbler.
Of course, I am not for a moment dismissing these subjects for a moment, merely illustrating where they draw their inspiration from. For 1984, read Stalin's Russia; for The Federalist Papers the American War of Independence. The greatest works are drawn from real life, from real people and real experience; their stature or infamy infused with the knowledge that it all really happened.
I should here, for posterity's sake, break off from this breathless eulogy to note sagely the "great job prospects!!" history supposedly brings. In an age of austerity and anti-intellectualism, our lecturers spend half their lives in a state of hand wringing self-justification, earnestly telling wide-eyed students of how FTSE companies are supposedly falling over themselves to hire experts on Prussian military campaigns.
Tosh. No true historian chooses their subject based on such desiccated, calculating machinations – we leave that to the Economics students. Regardless, it is worth noting that historians effectively run the world with Gordon Brown, Salman Rushdie and St Louis Theroux to name just a few. The heir to the throne, one Mr C Windsor, is also one of us, proving that a history degree can get you literally anywhere (or something like that).
"History", they say, " it prepares you for everything and nothing". Not strictly true, of course, because it's taught me such important skills as blagging a seminar whilst under the influence. But otherwise the maxim holds up- you exchange 27 grand and cocksure faith in the good of man for a cynical, sardonic worldview and a Russell Group uni 2:1.
For above all else, history teaches you about yourself. Not to sound too much like some psuedo-intellectual Instasham claptrap- "It's not history, it's Yourstory!!1!"- but doing the subject does teach one a degree of humility (I'm still learning). How else but humble can one feel when reading of the triumphs of giants past- of Shackleton's endeavours and Gandhi's struggles, of the quiet stoicism of plantation slaves and the suicidal bravery of the Charge of the Light Brigade?
The greatest stories, the greatest lessons, the greatest tragedies and the great triumphs- all are buried within history. Depressing, confusing, enraging, engaging- the subject is all this and so much more. And though I may curse it with rage when floundering with footnotes at 10 past 5 in the morning, it is still the greatest of all the subjects.