Modern history, global conflict, “relevance” and me.

So as I mentioned, I’ve been part of a team teaching this history course. It’s just a short one, and I’ve only had a few classes in it, but I’ve had the chance to chat to a few of the students and for the most part they’ve told me that they’re mainly interested in modern history. And I’ve sort of jokingly asked why.

Now, this may not be obvious about me from this blog, but I was originally a modern-history guy. When I started as an undergrad, I was primarily interested in 19th and 20th century topics — in fact, I regarded the Cambridge undergrad history requirement that you do a period before 1700 as a frustrating waste of time. But after spending a summer faffing about trying to write an undergraduate dissertation and failing, I decided to take another course instead of do the long paper, and I wound up doing “the Vikings in Europe.” I found the methodological challenges of early medieval history so much more compelling; plus also Vikings are cool. I switched over and never looked back; it just seemed obvious to me.

Now, partly, I wonder if there was also the question of “relevance.” People will often tell you that modern history is more relevant to the modern world — that certainly seems to be what my students believe. But I think that I didn’t necessarily feel that way when I was younger. I don’t know that I was convinced of the relevance of any of it.

I grew up at the very tail end of the Cold War. The rivalry between the US and the USSR was still very much a thing, although it wasn’t exactly at Cuban Missile Crisis levels, but at least to me as a kid it seemed like background noise. It was a fact about the world — one that I was perhaps a little more aware of than other kids due to my father’s work? — but not something that seemed like an evolving narrative. It just … was.

So when it ended, it was a surprise, but narratively it wasn’t terribly compelling. No big confrontation, no shots fired, it just ended (yes, that’s an oversimplification). And in place of all the rhetoric about conflict and good and evil, you got Bill Clinton. Now, I think that people who proclaimed “the end of history” were, shall we say, overstating the case slightly (yes, yes, I know that’s not quite what Fukuyama meant), but it definitely worked itself into my subconscious. Same goes for the UK; a lot of people were very happy about the results of the ’97 election — some unbelievable tit even put up a sign that said Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven! on the door of my college’s library the next morning — but I don’t think anyone really ever got excited about Tony Blair. Not in a positive way. These days, of course, we’d all like to see him chased by dogs, which would be exciting in its own way, but in those days he seemed like a bland leader for a bland age.

I remember staying up late in November 2000 to watch the election results and seeing the Florida recount controversy beginning and just thinking “well … it doesn’t really make any difference. Nothing important’s going to happen no matter which of these guys is in charge.”


Now, partly that’s a special state of mind called “being 22,” but I think a bigger part of it is that tendency to ignore the wider picture in the world if it doesn’t affect you directly. After all, things were not tranquil in those days in most parts of the world; it’s just that there wasn’t a really huge international conflict that affected either of the places I was living then, which is what usually captures our attention. Perhaps another part of it is that, looking back, my high school history education tended to treat things like the struggle for civil rights as being largely over. I don’t know if that was intentional, but that’s perhaps what I took away from it.

I remember thinking to myself at some point in the early 2000s that history was actually still happening, and experiencing that with interest. Maybe it’s just that enough time has passed since my breakup with modern history that I’m ready to start being friends with it again.

But of course that is not true of my students — they’re children of a post-Cold-War generation, and they’re mostly not from the US or Britain, and to them there’s never been any doubt of the relevance of modern history. They just have a little blind spot about the relevance of ancient and medieval history, and I hope that my classes helped them out a little with that.

Modern history, global conflict, “relevance” and me.

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