Today I have been running a history workshop in a fantastic school. During the lunch hour I spoke to the dinner ladies who told me how much they loved history. This has posed the question, what is this all about?
History is a complex intersection of a number of components. These components are the building blocks from which history is constructed. It is a mistake to think that history and the past are the same thing. The history is a reconstruction of the past from the traces that have remained.
These components are the facts. Facts are the building blocks of authoritative history. Here I would like to contrast postmodern history and pseudo history, such as conspiracies, from mainstream authoritative history. Mainstream history lives and dies by its own rules. The facts must either support the argument or bury it. In postmodern history the argument is more important than the facts and in conspiracy history the facts are of no importance whatsoever ever.
Buildings, books, archaeology and other remains from the past are, like the paper weight in 1984, messages from the past. They have messages that need to be understood and communicated. Its this role that justifies the existence of the Historian. Such people bury themselves in the past to understand it and communicate it to those who are fascinated by stories from ancient times.
But what is the history about? What is the prime mover. I know marxists who would point to class war, I know some people, even now, who believe in the zeitgeist or even some liberals who talk of progress. I am a liberal humanist and skeptical of such things. As I chatted to the dinner ladies I realised that what engaged them was exactly the same the true prime mover of history, people.