A few years ago, I was studying in the lower reaches of the Central Library in Edinburgh. The topic at hand was slavery as part of the Open University degree which is still in progress. I had printed off some articles and I had my course books in front of me. The chapter delved into statistics and in my frustration in understanding the charts and tables, I was close to chucking all of the papers out the window. What a confetti it would have made on the street below.
I was reminded of this recently when listening to an otherwise fascinating lecture about emigration. The speaker was great, interesting, engaging…until the tables came out. I am a fairly intelligent person and I have a half-decent grasp of maths. With statistics, I’m lost and it’s why I prefer words or qualitative evidence generally. I can do mental maths and my job requires a fair bit of adding up in my head but I’m glad I don’t tend to have a lot of numbers to deal with.
I have roughly two years left of an Open University degree in history. I started it a few years ago and after a couple of breaks, I’m now two thirds of the way through. After the lectures recently, I am more determined to get it done. It’s hard, though, keeping up with a course calendar while trying to work full-time and be a fairly civilised person but it’ll happen. The OU is exceedingly portable and a lot of materials come in PDF format so I can read them just about anywhere, on my iPad or off a computer screen.
The question I sometimes ponder is why history? Why have I devoted so much time to study the past? It all comes from my own past. I grew up in Dunbar, a place which oozes history of all types. Almost every building on the High Street is listed. Two battles which helped to shape the future of the kingdom happened in Dunbar. John Muir left from Dunbar to found national parks and shape consciousness about environmentalism. The inventor of the screw propeller came from Dunbar too. The Castle had its moments too. I just looked round and saw this as normal. My family and school took me places, told me stories. For a while I wanted to study politics but as time went on, I realised history was what I wanted to know more about. I don’t think it’s possible to understand the world today without having a grasp of what happened before.
Where I live now is incredibly historical too. My surroundings are quite modern – 1950s, 1960s architecture with a whole lot of motorway and railway nearby – but around me there are stories, good and bad. Glasgow has an immensely diverse past. Our city is a collection of villages forged together by people coming here for a better life and for work. We also have a darker past, with bigotry and slavery just two facets that should never be forgotten when considering all sides of what makes Glasgow what it is. I’ve spent six years here and I still don’t think I understand Glasgow. It might just take a lifetime.
Knowing our history is ever more important right now. Politically, particularly. I am a big believer that the best education can happen outside a classroom. It did with me. I was listening to a podcast last night about the Glasgow Women’s Library, a place which holds an immense amount of books and materials about all sorts of things. Every time I go there, I feel a little more positive about the world. Go to museums, libraries, castles. Walk down the street. History is beyond the classroom. It is walking round a graveyard or by an abandoned building. I’m studying again soon and I can’t wait. It’s about finding the right balance between the theoretical and the practical, putting one’s feet on the ground and feet up to read. That’s why I love history and it’s not going to change any time soon.