So, a question I get asked a lot is why do I do my degree? It’s a fair question and one that’s hard to answer. I am currently in my third and final year of my History degree, I’ve done History ever since my first year in secondary school so almost ten years now – which now I think about it is a really long time.
But I wanted to do this post to talk about why I do it as a degree, something completely different from anything I’d ever done before. I’d like to start by pointing out that History at degree level wasn’t what I expected at all. I thought there’d be more dates, in-depth discussions about what happened with who and where, basically harder and more detailed A-Levels. I was wrong. History, for me, has been learning about what a lot of historians have said about events, their arguments, how they view things differently and so on. I quickly learnt that historians don’t agree on anything and love an argument. The actual events though, strangely, took a sort of back seat to scholarly debates. Which has taken some getting used to. But it doesn’t change why I originally wanted to do it and still do.
I could say that my reasons are the usual hackneyed and cliched ones, if you don’t learn from the past you’ll make the same mistakes and all that guff (though given the rise of nationalism lately it’s probably not a bad lesson we learn). No, the reason that I decided to do History was because it’s fundamentally a study of people. Us. And all the people that time has forced us to leave behind. I’ve written on here before about the fact that I want to become a writer and it’s kind of the same thing, only the people I’ll be writing about are fictional. But people are amazing, flawed, unpredictable and some of the best things on this planet. They’re also some of the worst. History is full of murder, death, starvation, war and millions of other atrocities. But it’s also full of love, invention, discovery and wonder. It’s the story of us, and who doesn’t love a good story?
I recently did a study on Oliver Cromwell as part of my degree, and I was looking at him in Ireland – which if you don’t know resulted in the mass-slaughter of entire towns, an unforgivable crime. But what is interesting about it, from an objective viewpoint, is that Cromwell had never before or after that conducted a campaign like that. He respected the rules of war and every battle in the Civil War he was involved in was free of atrocities like Ireland. So why Ireland? Why did it have to happen? Was it religious zealous? Political differences? Or something else? The answer is, we’ll never know. Cromwell’s letters are vague and they’re the only source we have to know about him. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Attempting to understand such an awful event is just as important as explaining the best discoveries or people we can find, perhaps more. Fundamentally, everyone likes to think they’re doing the right thing, that they are good people. So how can someone like Cromwell think like that and yet act in a way that was not only out of character but also wrong? I’ll let you try and decide that one.
But that’s why History is important, as a discipline it teaches us about people, the worst and best of us, every grey area and every extreme. The extraordinary and the mundane. Sometimes it’s hard to be objective, but you have to be. Do I hate what Cromwell did? Absolutely. But that shouldn’t stop us studying it, if only to try and understand why in his mind it had to happen.