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History Quotations

John Simkin

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“Disobedience in the eyes of any one who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and rebellion.” (Oscar Wilde)

“In history one is absolutely sickened, not by the original crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishment that the good have inflicted.” (Oscar Wilde)

"We get our ethics from our history and judge our history by our ethics." (Ernst Troeltsch)

“The task of the historian is to understand the peoples of the past better than they understand themselves.” (Herbert Butterfield)

“History has to be rewritten in every generation, because although the past does not change the present does; each generation asks new questions of the past, and finds new areas of sympathy as it re-lives different aspects of the experiences of its predecessors.” (Christopher Hill)

“There are few activities more cooperative than the writing of history. The author puts his name brashly on the title-page and the reviewers rightly attack him for his errors and misinterpretations; but none knows better than he how much his whole enterprise depends on the preceding labours of others.” (Christopher Hill)

“Everyone is a reactionary about subjects he understands.” (Robert Conquest)

“Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.” (Duke of Wellington)

“The man who sees both sides of a question is a man who sees absolutely nothing at all.” (Oscar Wilde)

“Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck by the difference between what things are and what they might have been.” (William Hazlitt)

“History is but a pack of tricks we play on the dead.” (Voltaire).

“History is little more than the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” (Edward Gibbon).

“History is as much an art as a science.” (Ernest Renan).

Men make their own history, but they do not know that they are making it.” (Karl Marx).

“There will always be a connection between the way in which men contemplate the past and the way in which they contemplate the present.” (Thomas Buckle).

“It is a reproach of historians that they have too often turned history into a mere record of the butchery of men by their fellow men.” (J. R. Green).

Such is the unity of history that anyone who endeavours to tell a piece of it must feel that his first sentence tears a seamless web (F. W. Maitland).

History is the sextant and compass of states, which, tossed by wind and current, would be lost in confusion if they could not fix their position.” (Alan Nevins).

“The historians are the guardians of tradition, the priests of the cult of nationality, the prophets of social reform, the exponents and upholders of national virtue and glory” (Philip Bagby).

“The study of history is a personal matter, in which the activity is generally more valuable than the result." (V. H. Galbraith).

“A society sure of its values had needed history only to celebrate the glories of the past, but a society of changing values and consequent confusions also needed history as a utilitarian guide.” (Thomas Cochran).

“Man generally is entangled in insoluble problems; history is consequently a tragedy in which we are all involved, whose keynote is anxiety and frustration, not progress and fulfilment." (Arthur Schlesinger Jr).

“Political and social history are in my view two aspects of the same process. Social life loses half its interest and political movements lose most of their meaning if they are considered separately." (F. M. Powicke).

“The aim of the historian, like that of the artist, is to enlarge our picture of the world, to give us a new way of looking at things.” (James Joll).

“History free of all values cannot be written. Indeed, it is a concept almost impossible to understand, for men will scarcely take the trouble to inquire laboriously into something which they set no value upon (W. H. B. Court)

“What better preparation for a history which seeks to bring societies to life and to understand that life than to have really lived, commanded men, suffered with them and shared their joys.” (Lucien Febvre)

“A mere collector of supposed facts is as useful as a collector of matchboxes.” (Lucien Febvre)

“Consciousness of the past alone can make us understand the present.” (Herbert Luethy).

“The justification of all historical study must ultimately be that it enhances our self-consciousness, enables us to see ourselves in perspective, and helps us towards that greater freedom which comes from self-knowledge.” (Keith Thomas).

“History is not a succession of events, it is the links between them.” (E. Evans Pritchard). '

“It is a mark of civilised man that he seeks to understand his traditions, and to criticise them, not to swallow them whole.” (M. I. Finley).

“The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves.” (William Hazlitt)

“The disadvantage of men not knowing the past is that they do not know the present.” (G. K. Chesterton)

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.” (Cicero)

“Peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” (Hegel)

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” (Aldous Huxley)

"Until the lion has a historian of his own, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter." (African Proverb)

“When a man of true genius appears in the world, you may know him by the infallible sign, that all the dunces are in conspiracy against him.” (Jonathan Swift)

“The history of the world is the history of the privileged few.“ (Henry Miller)

“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe” (H. G. Wells)

“More history is made by secret handshakes than by battles, bills and proclamations.” (John Barth).

“The historian must not try to know what is truth, if he values his honesty; for, if he cares for his truths, he is certain to falsify his facts.” (Henry Adams)

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)

"Pronounce us guilty a thousand times over: the goddess of the eternal court of history will smile. She will acquit us.” (Adolf Hitler, 1924)

"Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me." (Fidel Castro, 1953)

“It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.” (Voltaire)

"The motive force of history is truth and not lies." (Leon Trotsky)

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Some quotations sent in by Terry Hadyn:

"It is only through knowledge of its history that a society can have knowledge of itself. As a man without memory and self-knowledge is a man adrift, so a society without memory (or more correctly without recollection) and self-knowledge would be a society adrift." (Arthur Marwick)

"History, well taught, is the demythologising of the past… Take any important issue of our time – Northern Ireland, Nuclear Disarmament, Race, The Welfare State, South Africa – and it becomes impossible to seriously confront any of them without understanding their historical background." (Alan Bullock)

"If we have no tools to judge between different stories about the past, then history would be unable to answer the atavistic instinct that gives rise to the discipline in the first place: how did we get here, and what happened to those before us?" (J. Charmley)

"The divorce between current affairs and history, so that they are regarded as two different subjects, gravely weakens both. It accentuates the natural tendency of children to regard history as something remote and irrelevant instead of something which has formed the world around them and which is continuously being formed by that world. And, it accentuates equally the tendency to look at contemporary questions as though they had no context in time, no parallels or precedents." (Ministry of Education, 1952, Teaching History, pamphlet No. 23, London, HMSO: 32)

"There is no evidence that school pupils translate their knowledge of the past into an understanding of the present unless the past is explicitly related to current circumstances." (John Slater, Teaching History in the New Europe, 1995)

"History is important. More than any other topic, it is about us. Whether one deems our present society wondrous or awful or both, history reveals how we got to this point." (James W. Loewen)

"If the country is to survive as a democracy it will depend on voters who understand how our political institutions have evolved and the events that went into their creation. A nation’s sense of its history is indistinguishable from its social cohesion." (Alan Bullock)

"History is a tool to penetrate and deflate the hypocrisies of the modern world." (John Kenyon)

"History will help to remedy intellectual faults such as excessive concentration on one line of thought, absence of understanding for other points of view, belief in simple solutions, lack of balance of mind, absence of an imaginative understanding." (G. Elton)

"Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.’" (Thomas Jefferson)

"We are hurtling towards self-destruction at an alarming rate thanks chiefly to an advertising and propaganda system that goads people from infancy towards apathy, isolation, passivity, helplessness and separation." (Noam Chomsky)

"School history provides a framework for pupils to discuss polemical and contentious issues within academic canons of reliability, explanation and justification." (Chris Husbands)

"History… does not seek either to sustain or devalue tradition, heritage or culture. It does not assume that there are shared values waiting to be defined and demanding to be supported. It does not require us to believe that a society’s values are always valuable. If history seeks to guarantee any of these things, it ceases to be history and becomes indoctrination. The new history offers very barren and infertile ground to the indoctrinators." (John Slater)

"The child should be brought to realise the solidarity of mankind and to have a feeling of community, indifferent to class or nation or race." (H. A. Drummond)

"History, properly taught, can help men to become critical and humane, just as wrongly taught it can turn them into bigots and fanatics." (Christopher Hill)

"History is above all else an argument. It is an argument between different historians, and perhaps, an argument between the past and the present, an argument between what actually happened and what is going to happen next. Arguments are important; they create the possibility of changing things." (J. Arnold)

"The reason for teaching history is not that it changes society, but that it changes pupils; it changes what they see in the world, and how they see it…. To say someone has learnt history is to say something very wide ranging about the way in which he or she is likely to make sense of the world. History offers a way of seeing almost any substantive issue in human affairs, subject to certain procedures and standards, whatever feelings one may have." (Peter Lee)

"As a young man, I was very interested in how people lived in earlier times; how they got from place to place, lighted their homes, cooked their meals and so on. So I went to the history books. Well, I could find out all about kings and presidents; but I could learn nothing of their everyday lives. So I decided that history is bunk." (Henry Ford)

"It’s difficult to change the way you see the world. We take on a certain view when we are young then spend the rest of our lives collecting the evidence.” (Andrew Miller)

"In America, much foreign policy seems contrived to be an exercise in political theory with no attention to history whatsoever. Yet there’s a great reverence for history – though it’s history as thumb-sucking, security blanket-nibbling self-congratulation." (Simon Schama)

"The way history is currently taught in schools, jumping from Hitler to the Henrys, is like a nightmare vision of Star Wars, where you have episode four before you have episode one. The sense of going on a journey of chronology and continuity, is incredibly important to the imagination." (Simon Schama)

"Historians are dangerous people. They are capable of upsetting everything." (Nikita Khrushchev)

"Oppression does not stand on the doorstep with a toothbrush moustache and a swastika armband. It creeps up insidiously, step by step." (Lord Lane)

"It is not a school’s task to produce good citizens any more than it is to produce Christian gentlemen. The school does not give people their political ideals or religious faith but the means to discover both for themselves. Above all, it gives them the scepticism to doubt, rather than the inclination to believe. In this sense, a good school is subversive of current orthodoxy in politics, religion and learning. Of course, by placing the emphasis on radical independence of mind, we run the risk of producing, for example, an intelligent traitor rather than a stupid patriot. But the risk of failing is much greater because the result may be a sham democracy in which citizens do not have the independence to participate." (John Rae)

"History punishes those that come late to it." (Gorbachev)

"History is the propaganda of the victors." (Ernst Toller)

"Not all human beings throughout the whole of time can be studied. Historians are obliged to select. Selection involves a value judgement which gives public importance and status to those who are selected and implicitly, sometimes deliberately, denies it to those who are not. History is not a value free enterprise. All these characteristics justify the status of history as a distinct subject and discipline." (John Slater)

"Dear Delio, I am feeling a little tired and can’t write much. But please write to me all the same and tell me everything at school that interests you. I think you must like history, as I liked it when I was your age, because it deals with living people, and everything that concerns people, as many people as possible, all people in the world, in so far as they unite together in society and work and struggle and make a bid for a better life. All that can’t fail to please you more than anything else, isn’t that right?" (Antonio Gramsci’s last letter from prison to his son, 1937)

"We prefer to nurture our own truths rather than listen to the experience of those on the other side… My grandparents had fought in an earlier phase of the Irish conflict and lived through the horror of civil war. Yet in our early days at school in Dublin, we were never taught about the true horror of those days or the pain experienced by those on the other side. The failure to understand the pain of others is one of the greatest tragedies of divided societies. It perpetuates the agony." (Fergal Keane, 2006)

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