On the pleasures of historical thinking

It was late afternoon last Sunday and I was celebrating the start of the holiday by  Abraham_Bosse_Salon_de_damesstrolling happily around the Left Bank. In our excitement, we’d made our usual mistake of forgetting to stop for lunch earlier in the day and so we stopped to buy a baguette in a nearby boulangerie, tearing it into chunks and eating it as we walked. I was, as you might imagine, feeling rather satisfied with this turn of events, and my happiness was only increased because I had a fund of anecdotes the politics of bread in the Ancien Regime with which I could regale my poor companions.

I’m not starting with that particular anecdote in order to brag (and I extend a heartfelt apology to all those just finishing term), but because it ties in to something I’ve been thinking about recently, and that is how enjoyable historical thinking can be. The enjoyment of possessing historical knowledge and exercising it through the process of historical reasoning is a latent element to a lot of recent writing by history teachers (and I’m sure is present in other disciplines) but it is not usually made all that explicit. So, as a way of seeing out the year, I am going to write for a little while on the pleasures of historical thinking.

Let’s start back in Paris. Now one of the reasons why I frantically booked a weekend away in this city rather than any other in the dark days at the start of end of November was because it is my historical ‘turf’. Most history teachers reading this will have one, some will have more. It is that place where, due to historical knowledge acquired patiently over time, there is rarely a corner, street or wall that does not ‘resonate’ for you, that does not call up some anecdote or thread of reasoning from your memory. And it’s enjoyable, it is great fun to walk past the Louvre and have your mind call up the events of the Day of Dupes, through St Germain and the Marais while thinking about the socio-economic division of Ancien Regime Paris and to stand in the Palais Royal and to recall the events of the 12th July 1789. (It is especially pleasurable when you have a long-suffering captive audience who is forced to listen to every stray historical thought that occurs to you.) Now the subject matter might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve seen enough colleagues’ faces light up and suddenly reveal a fund of anecdotes at Ypres, Gettysburg, Hampton Court and numerous other places to know that the process is by no means unique.

You might point out that it is hardly surprising that I would enjoy wandering around Paris during my time off. However, the pleasures of historical thinking can also be found in more mundane places. I’ve made a concerted effort to read more historical scholarship this year after a bit of a fallow period and the hour or so a day that I have spent with a book, acquiring new knowledge and engaging with historical argument, has become time that I have looked forward to. Discussing that reading with students and watching them become confident enough with the historical literature they’re reading to be able to argue and even joke about it has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job this year. And even in the more day-to-day aspects, many people reading this will know of the pleasure of planning and executing a lesson in just the right way to illustrate a particular concept or instil a particular piece of knowledge. Many of you will also look forward to the lesson in which you know you’re going to talk about that particular event or roll out that particular story that you think is amusing, interesting and important to the matter at hand. (I have never yet had a disappointing reaction to the story of Ralph Morice and the swimming bear.) These joys that come from historical knowledge and the ability to inhabit a discipline are not less keen than the pleasure a musician feels when they first nail a piece, or a writer when they perfect a sentence, even if they are not always discussed in the same terms.

So why is this important? Well personally, I find it important because I’ve had one of those terms which has led me to google the dread phrase ‘routes out of teaching’ and it has mainly been these small historical pleasures that have kept me from browsing through the search results too seriously. More broadly I think it is important because while we, quite rightly, talk about the importance of history, its value in itself and for a range of ancillary purposes, we perhaps don’t talk enough about the enjoyment that you can gain from it. By this I don’t mean ‘entertainment’, the study of history can contain humour and anecdote and surprise, but must also contain a good amount of wrestling with complex intellectual problems and the consideration of events that are puzzling, bizarre and occasionally horrifying. But in its totality, the work of acquiring knowledge, calling it up once it has been acquired and applying it to some interesting intellectual problem can and does involve a significant amount of enjoyment, it can make you see battle lines in an empty field, bread riots in a baguette and worlds of possibility in a pile of newly acquired books.

So on that rather upbeat note, I hope everyone enjoys their well-earned break. I’m going to pour myself a drink, resolutely refuse to check my school email and, at some point during the post-Christmas fug, I’m going to remind myself of the pleasures of historical thinking that can take place equally the streets of Paris and in my classroom on a gloomy Thursday afternoon.