History and Time – It’s All Relative

A watch face with no band

Do you think this watch last worn in the 1980s is an historic object?

Every now and then my daughter and I think about how the times in which we live will be perceived by people in the future. “They did that???,” we imagine incredulous school students of the future saying when told about things that happen that seem to be weirdly normal today.

But when will school students be taught about 2017 in their history lessons? I will make a bold prediction. I don’t expect lessons about 2017 to be taught in schools until some time around the 2040s.

School history curriculums only include events that occurred before the students were born. I was born in the mid-1960s so our history lessons included nothing about the 1960s, but neither do I remember any current event of that decade. My children learned about the 1960s in their history lessons. They know as much about the 1960s as I do, and perhaps more.

Our parents were born at the beginning of World War II. They did not learn anything about the War and the Holocaust at school. They learned about these events in a variety of fragmentary ways when they left school – through meeting refugees, watching news reels at the cinema, documentaries, reading etc.

A child born this year is unlikely to learn about this year’s events, even in their final year of school in around 2035. And they won’t have memories of this year’s public events, or even the events of the next seven years either.

Young children focus on the immediate environment around them and their personal experiences. They are the centre of the world, and if something happens but has no direct impact on them they ignore it. As they grow older, parents protect them from exposure to distressing world events. “Warning: the following story may distress some viewers” is the only thing I remember about the Vietnam War. This was the signal for our parents to shepherd us out of the lounge to wash dishes in the kitchen. In turn I was very careful to shelter my four-year-old from the horrific news of the Rwandan Genocide and the Port Arthur Massacre two years later. We don’t remember the public events of our first seven or eight years of our lives. For a variety of reasons those events feel ‘foreign’ to us even though we were alive at the time.

To school teachers and curriculum designers, events ten or fifteen years earlier are familiar and only just drifting out of the realm of ‘current affairs’. They don’t feel like history so they are not mentioned in history classes. I would be surprised if today’s grade ten students are taught about the Global Financial Crisis of 2007. I suspect that 2017 won’t see high school students being explicitly taught about the events of September 11th, 2001 either.

Events that occur during our adult lives retain the degree of familiarity that to our minds disqualifies these events from being considered ‘history’. Ten years ago? That becomes more ‘recent’ the older we get. Yet a world event that occurred ten years ago is something teenagers only know about second-hand.

I had a lesson in this when I sat down to write about the Whitlam government a couple of years ago. The dismissal was probably the first momentous political event that penetrated our childhood – especially as the ABC interrupted afternoon children’s television programs to cross live to Canberra with the news.

I have distinct memories of the dismissal. I wonder how many other households were like ours that day? My brother and I ran outside to break the news to our parents when they came home from work. It was the first time that we, momentarily, knew more about the world than they did.

I never published my blog post about the Whitlam government because it had a major flaw. The only thing about it I could remember was the dismissal. I had no first-hand memories of any actions of that government and had to consult secondary sources. If I had published the post it would have violated an important principle I try to adhere to: don’t publish anything unless I have something unique to say and that makes a positive contribution to our understanding of life. All I could do was repeat what others have said about the Whitlam government.

We don’t know the history of the first seven or eight years of our lives unless we deliberately seek it out when we are adults. When we do discover that history we see what to our minds are poor quality images, old-fashioned newspaper page layouts and clothes. The history of our childhood looks so old, like a bygone era. Yet it might have only been twenty years earlier.

Now I have reached my half-century, I can see events from twenty years earlier still wrapped in the fabric of what is occurring now. It is part of my ‘current’. But to a teenager or someone in their twenties they will regard the same events as ‘history’.

My mother was quite irritated when I was a child and I asked her to tell me about the “olden days”. My mother’s childhood and teenage years were history to me but my mother, who was in her late twenties or early thirties, did not feel old enough to have lived in historic times. The only response my question evoked was my mother protesting she was not old enough to have lived in the “olden days”. I was puzzled at that response as a child but I understand it now.

I remember the disgust of my grandmother at visiting a museum when I was a child and seeing household items that were in use when she was a child. It wasn’t history, it was a pile of junk as far as she was concerned. My mother and I wonder if my grandmother’s attitude was also shaped by living through two world wars and the Depression. She didn’t have a sense of nostalgia – probably because that era was horrible to live through and the new was much better in her eyes. Our life experiences and personality also shape what we honour with the description ‘historic’.

What qualifies as being historic differs from person to person and changes as a person ages.

History and time – it is all relative.


2 thoughts on “History and Time – It’s All Relative

  1. I do remember Harold Holt drowning when I was 15 or so, that broke into all the TV programmes, but I don’t remember JFK (when I was 12). As a kid reading a book about it, I asked mum if she remembered the 1932 Southern Cloud disaster (plane disappearance/crash). She was offended, although the timing seemed right to me, that was the year she was born.


    • Your experience seems similar to mine Bill. I laughed when my daughter came home from high school and asked if she could borrow some clothes of mine from the 1960s to wear for a school project. I told her that toddler clothes wouldn’t fit her.


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