Letter from the i editor: Historical perspective


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The Independent Online

We’ve all heard the joke: “Dad, when you were at school, history must have been easy, because there wasn’t that much of it.”

The older we get, the more history that passes, the more painful the joke. But after a week of wall-to-wall coverage of the 9/11 tenth anniversary, a snippet on the radio stopped me in my tracks.

Someone was discussing the London memorial to 9/11 created out of World Trade Centre wreckage. He was talking about how little some British children knew of the event (this was before last week's coverage). 9/11 didn’t mean much to many of them: “9/11 was about trade because it was the World Trade Centre” and “It was retaliation for what the Americans did to Afghanistan”.

At this point you might expect the usual rant that: “Edukashun standards ain’t wot they woz”, but I recognise that modern history is a particularly sensitive subject to teach. I remember being bemused and frustrated that I endured 14 years of schooling without a sniff of Second World War Britain. And I did history A-level, wherein I learned about Vietnam, which had only finished relatively recently. I learned about the war from my Ma and the epic World at War series, narrated by the peerless Laurence Olivier (get the box set).

The late, great Norman Mailer said he couldn't write about 9/11 until 10 years had passed. Sadly, he never got the chance. But how much time must elapse before we gain historical perspective? And, in the meantime, should we not learn about more recent history in other classes: society, perhaps, or politics? There really is no easy solution, but the less we learn, the more likely the tragedies of history will repeat themselves.