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History Masterclass - Are there lessons to be learned from history?

Last year I had to great fortune to be invited by Dr Sam Willis to experience a new initiative that he and fellow historian and broadcaster Suzannah Lipscomb, had begun called The History Masterclass. I headed down to the Army and Navy Club on Pall Mall, London, to join in on the 'Lessons of History' masterclass led by History Hit's Dan Snow. I had no idea what to expect but, knowing that tickets were strictly limited, knew it would be a less formal and more intimate than any history events I had attended before. It was not only that but, like all good masterclasses should be, interactive. The audience was actively encouraged to chip in and make points, ask questions and add their knowledge throughout the evening. So, not only was I treated to the thoughts of three historians but also those of the audience too and, of course, I thoroughly enjoyed putting my ideas and thoughts across.

So, can we draw lessons from history? Can we prevent repeating awful atrocities and conflict by recognising similarities between the build up to a previous event and something happening right now? We all want to say "Yes", right?

I had expected the discussion, 'The Lessons of History' to be an (almost) straightforward topic which would conclude with a list of lessons either learnt, or missed, from history.

However, it turned out to be far, far more complex and thought provoking!

Dan began by talking about the 'fait accompli' nature by which history became taught whilst he was at school and university, how everything that has gone before was thought of almost as a linear line to this conclusion and the world we were living in. Wars had been fought, borders decided and sustainable social structures and systems created.But with world events since, and many within the past year, history and a need to understand what has gone before has not just become a matter of interest but of concern for a wider audience.

So, can we draw lessons from history? Can we prevent repeating awful atrocities and conflict by recognising similarities between the build up to a previous event and something happening right now? We all want to say "Yes" right? But then we turn on the news and quickly have to wonder.

© History Masterclass

I remember as a child, first learning about the Holocaust and the atrocious treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, asking my Dad why that was allowed to happen. He answered "So, it doesn't happen again!" As a child I accepted this reassuring answer, as an adult I realise that was more a wish than a certainty.

As the discussion went on it became obvious that this was not a simple topic. 

Perhaps we could have concluded that the only lesson to be learned from history is that man learns nothing from his history? 

However we tend to think in this direction when we consider the bad things that have gone before. What about the advances? What about those things that have become adopted into our daily lives that we don't think of a lesson from history because they surround us still? The sewerage system, clean water, good hygiene practices in hospitals etc - are these not lessons learned through past collective experiences?

What about the actions and decisions of key individuals? 

Dan raised a though provoking point, what if their physical or mental state at the time of key decisions overrode all other motivations and reasoning? There is a huge amount of analysis that goes into looking into the actions of key individuals, those who have made decisions which affected the lives of thousands, even millions of other people like military leaders and heads of state.Much time and ink has been spent analysing character, motivations, what they knew or didn't know. But, could that have been a futile effort when in fact the man (and it usually is a man we are talking of) was high on drugs, full of alcohol, depressed or two weeks into a crippling toothache when he made that particular decision? That may seem flippant but think about the mood you are in and the decisions you make when in pain, under the influence or not in your best mental state! Key people did make decisions under these circumstances and that can be difficult to get our heads around because, as we also all nodded our heads to, we all hope someone has a plan for what is going on! If this was the case are there any lessons to learn from their actions?

We covered so much ground that it would be the outline for a book to try and cover it all. But, I will finish this blog by posing a few of the questions and discussion points from the evening for you to think about:

Do the lessons you believe could or should be learned depend on your perspective? In other words, do we only believe a lesson needs to be learned if it doesn't agree with our standpoint? There may be people (I hope there aren't) who believe Hitler's actions against the Jews were just and necessary and so don't believe there is a lesson to be learned there in the same way as I do.

Are lessons transferrable across cultures and across time?

Can lessons be learned when in fact anyone can find a validation in history to support any action? Are we all merely taking from it what we want to, to further support a view point we already posses?

Should we consider that many key personalities in history were young people when they made some of their key decisions and actions?

Do individuals matter? Would the world have moved in the same way eventually?

Will historians of the future revel in the amount of information each of us create during this digital age? Or, will our polished self projection provide them with little insight and a handwritten paper diary will be as treasured a find from the 21st century as it is from any previous ones?

Discussion points from History Masterclass with Dan Snow, 1st Feb 2017

[Article updated 31st October 2018, originally version published 4th Feb 2017]

Would you like to know more about Philippa and British History Tours?

Philippa is a history travel writer who began travelling the UK in search of places with history stories to tell in 2001 and hasn't stopped since. She established British History Tours in 2014 to create history tours and travel itineraries for people travelling in the UK. 

As well as creating incredible historical experience tours she also writes for history and travel publications such as History Extra, Tudor Life Magazine and FlyBe.

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History Tours 2019  

Here is a quick video from myself and Claire Ridgway during the most recent tour. 

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