Don’t Knock History

Recently, I listened to a BBC radio programme, The Long View, which compared the Facebook Cambridge Analytica data row with Luther’s rejection of Purgatory and a loss of trust in the Church in pre-Reformation Europe. It was another reminder that even though technology and society have changed, and the world we inhabit today would be unrecognisable to Luther, nothing much changes.

The world goes round and comes around.

My days at school were a long time ago. I had a scholarship to Dulwich and streaming started very early. By the time I was thirteen already I was starting to choose the subjects I wanted to study. Quickly, I was moving towards the sciences and dropping the arts.

By sixteen my study was all formula and electrons. The most words I ever wrote in homework or exams were, therefore or and so, linking pieces of algebra in a mathematical proof.

These early decisions were based mostly on comparative abilities. I have a logical, mathematical brain and the choice was easy, and I rejected any option that required writing an essay. It was the same at University where I managed to take an economics degree without one essay. It wasn’t just that I was better at maths. I had no English skills.

Feel free to sit back for a moment and pen your email noting that nothing much has changed.

But it wasn’t just ability, it was also interest. I had no interest in literature or history. I didn’t think studying history had any benefit. I argued we live in a very different world. What’s the point in looking backwards? I was arguing for mindfulness in days before it was even thought about. Live in the present and look forward was my mantra. Studying history was an indulgence. It can teach us, nothing.

I have changed my mind.

Yesterday I drew the comparison between President Trump’s trade actions against China and Alexander Hamilton who was the original 18th-century American proponent of tariffs and protectionism. It wasn’t careful planning on my part, but it is a useful juxtaposition of thoughts. We have seen the effects of trade wars and we can predict reactions.

Of course, the technology changes but the world is driven by human behaviour and that is unchanging. The drives for power, love, security, and safety will always persist. That is why we need to study history.

Now I enjoy mentoring young staff and sharing my experiences. I have been in a similar situation and experienced the ups and downs and the vagaries of life and work. I learnt from my peer’s experiences and it is invaluable.

History does repeat itself. Empires rise and then fail. It is never exactly the same but the lessons for the future are in our past. Studying the past means that we can change.

Isaac Newton said, ‘if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,’ Even the great have to rely on the past.

This is a little aside. About a year ago I met many of my old school friends. I was talking to Vivian Bazalgette and he pointed out one particular oddity of life. He was on the arts side of the school and I was a scientist. He went to Cambridge and, I think, read history. Now he is the Chief Investment Officer at one of the largest pension funds. He is working in one of the most numerate of professions, while I have moved on to become a writer. Change is in us all.