Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The role of the individual in history

One of the things that I love about the study of history is the way in which the ever-changing past is slowly revealed. Ever-changing because our view of the past is affected by both the evidence available and the questions we ask of that evidence. Slowly revealed because the patterns of the past peep through as we work and are then stitched together to form a story that can be subject to further review, test and development.

Much history is by nature broad brush. We talk about trends, about forces, movements, major events and about individuals who are seen to be of particular importance. In doing so, we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that history is about people.

Much of my own limited historical research, limited because of time, has a local, regional and family focus. I point and counterpoint between local, regional, national and international, but always within a frame set by my immediate interests.

In research and writing, I am constantly struck by the importance of the individual. This can be seen especially clearly at local level, but also holds at broader level.

The members of the Russian General Staff who persuaded the Tsar to play tennis at a critical time to keep him out of contact while they made decisions doomed the entire Imperial family and an Empire. The Generals could have gone a different route, the Tsar could have insisted on being involved.

I am also constantly struck by linkages, by the way in which past sets of actions set the basis for future actions.

In 1928, David Drummond as NSW Minister for Education in combination with S H Smith as head of the Department of Public Instruction pushed through the creation of the Armidale Teacher's College. In turn, this laid the base for the establishment of the New England University College in 1938.

Drummond's individual role was critical in all this. Yet his role rested on a whole series of prior actions by other individuals. Without those actions, neither the Teacher's College nor University would have come into existence.

At broader level, the continuing campaigns for improved country education created a climate that would support what was, at the time, an expensive initiative. At local level, the Armidale location could not have been chosen without previous individual actions that had led to the development of the small cathedral city as an education centre.

The fund raising campaigns that led to the establishment of The Armidale School and the New England Girls School in the 1890s meant that by 1928 Armidale had a significant public and private educational system and was already recognised as an educational centre.

Drill down below this, and you find that particular families such as the Whites played an important role in providing funds for the new Anglican schools. Later when funds had to be raised to finance the new University College - NSW legislation provided for the creation of new institutions, but only if a certain sum of money was raised first - it was again the White family who played a key funding role.

This is not a history of my own area. My point is that this pattern of individual action, of the painstaking creation of linkages between individuals over time and space, of the creation of committees and movements, is replicated time and time again when we come to look at positive changes over time.

Sometimes the contribution can be very small, attending public meetings or keeping committee minutes. However, the cumulative effect is substantial.

This holds true on the negative side as well.

Adolf Hitler could not have risen to power without the cumulative effect of thousands of individual decisions. Even Australian Prime Minister Billie Hughes played an important role through his effective agitation for the imposition of harsh peace terms on Germany at the end of the First World Way. Germany must be made to pay - and pay. We all paid as a consequence.

Just at present I think it helpful to remember that individuals do count not just in a philosophical sense, but as people who affect the course of history. We are all responsible.


Anonymous said...

Jim, I agree in total. At every micro level group, say the village in India, there is always lore about a few individuals who had left their footprints on the village's records. Similarly, businesses, towns and NGOs will all talk about some individuals who had made special contributions. I can write about at least a couple of dozen people in this category. They are what are known as unsung heroes.

Jim Belshaw said...

You put that well, Ramana. These are the people who tie all societies together. The ones who try.