When I first studied history, it was generally all big picture stuff: wars, revolutions, movements, causes and effects.
I also did an awful lot of history. At school, I did six full year courses in modern history plus Australian history honours, three full year courses in ancient history, again plus honours. Then at university there were five full year units plus a full honours year. As I said, that's a lot of history. By the end it also spanned a long time period, from prehistory to the present day, if with a bias towards the history of Britain and Empire, Australia, Europe and the Mediterranean.
This bias wasn't universal. Asian history, for example, was included, if mainly with a twentieth century focus. In addition, my geography honours course at school was solely on Asia, with a strong focus on economic and human geography and on what would now be called development studies.
I think that my biggest problem at school and then at university was simply getting my mind round what people thought and felt in the various periods I was looking at. I was also puzzled by the how of things. I could write a decent essay on the causes of the First World War, for example, but struggled to understand how those involved could actually let things come to such a pass. This was, of course, a case of wisdom in hindsight, since I knew what was to happen.
One of the things that I found most helpful in giving emotional content to what otherwise might have been cardboard cut-outs were historical novels. Because I was a bookish somewhat introspective child, I read a lot: Conan Doyle's Sir Nigel and the White Company gave me a feel for the Feudal period; Rafael Sabatini's various books (real favourites of mine) brought in the complicated world of the Italian Peninsula as well as the French Revolution; while Catherine Gaskin's immensely popular popular 1954 novel Sarah Dane helped introduce me to convict Sydney.
The picture that I acquired may have been partial in both senses of the word, but it did bring people and periods alive.
Leaving Armidale for Canberra, I left history for economics. By the time I returned to history, I had run for politics, been actively involved in party and community development development activities and had experience as an economist and policy advisor at reasonably senior levels. The different ideas and experiences gained affected my approach to history in quite profound ways. In particular, it meant that I now looked at historical processes, activities and events from the perspective of a sometimes player. I now knew something about the how.
In this last part of this muse, I want to look at just two elements here: the importance of event chains and what I have come to call the importance of the small.
If you look at the conflagration of the First World War, it was not inevitable. It came about because of a series of decisions made by individuals over time that determined both what it would happen and the form that it would take. Those decisions took place within institutional contexts and were affected by personalities and by previous events.
When we talk about the causes of the First World War, we look at key patterns and call them causes. Naval rivalries between Britain and Germany is one often cited cause, and indeed at one level it was. However, those rivalries in turn depended upon a whole series of interacting previous decisions. The War itself came about because of a whole series of interacting decision trains.
In similar vein, the settlement by the British at Botany Bay and then Port Jackson was not inevitable, although it arguably was inevitable that the continent would have been colonised by one or indeed more of the European powers, most probably Britain since she was the dominant sea power. When we talk about the causes of British settlement in 1788, we tend to talk about and combine two very different things: one are the general forces that led to a decision to colonise; the second, those things that led to the particular decision at a point in time.
The second thing that I want to talk about, the importance of the small, is linked to the first.
At a personal level, we all know that small individual decisions can have important longer term outcomes that are unclear, indeed unforeseeable, at the time. Since history is the aggregation of individual decisions and actions, it should not be surprising that history displays the same pattern.
I first really became aware of this one in my studies of local and regional history.
David Drummond is sometimes called the founder of the University of New England. At one sense that's true. Yet, to my mind, the single most important event that allowed for the later establishment of the New England University College in 1938 was the earlier decision of certain grazing families in the 1890s to help fund the establishment of the Armidale School and the New England Girls' School. This consolidated the educational base that later supported the establishment of the Armidale Teachers' College in 1928 and then the University College ten years later.
To take another very local example, Armidale today is a beautiful city marked by its trees. This reinforces the city's place. Yet in 1938 Armidale had very few trees. The decision of local accountant Alwyn Jones to make Armidale beautification his cause in the 1950s played a very important role in the city that we have today.
These are purely local examples, yet I find them replicated time and time again. At a time when there is so much complexity and indeed negativity, I find find it rather inspirational that history shows the importance of individual endeavour for good as well as bad.