I love history—I teach it, in fact—and it is one of the things that I most enjoy about Europe. You see old things everywhere, and I don’t just mean in the pews. Within the bounds of the Adur Valley parish are some twelve or so mediæval churches (most of them either Saxon or Norman, which is to say getting on for a thousand or so years old) plus a ruined castle, an Iron Age hill fort (Chanctonbury Ring), and another Iron Age hill fort (Cissbury ring) nearby. The wall in my garden is at least hundreds of years old, and is probably older than the USA. I really feared I would pine for ‘real’ history, and find the relatively modern buildings the Americans think of as historical, well, boring, and perhaps faintly laughable. I think I did this because of the reaction of many Americans in Europe, and I have known many of these. ‘Golly; this kinda puts our history into the shade’. I usually mutter something about actually European history being as much their history as ours, which it is, and change the subject.
But here in the States, I have found their history just as fascinating, to my surprise. One simply adjusts ones scales and proportions a bit. History is about where people came from, not how long it took. In this sense, whether the matter is ten years or a thousand is far less important that I thought. The US is rightly interested in its history, and I too am finding it interesting.
Which leads me to wonder something else. Older Americans tell me how, when they were at school, they studied European history, rather than American. Now it’s American, not European. This creates a couple of problems. The first is an ignorance of much human history before the Pilgrim Fathers (except the doings of some Indian tribes), and a lot after it. There is also the very real problem of how to fill up the teaching hours. I wonder if this is where ‘social history’ began to take the place of ‘battles and dates’ history. If there aren’t enough battles and kings to fill a syllabus, then, because nature abhors a vacuum, you are going to have to fill it up with the study of the oppression of women in Nantucket before 1900, or something. And because if America sneezes, the UK catches cold, the same process naturally finds its way to the UK in due course. So, we have seen in the UK 'social history' replacing much more interesting history-history. It is less likely to find enthusiasts, I think, though it may produce more sociologists.