Margaret MacMillan discusses the challenges of writing history

Hundreds gathered in the MacEwan Ballroom to hear Margaret MacMillan, one of the most respected historians of our time, examine the challenges of writing about history and share insights into her own writing March 23.

MacMillan, this year’s Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Visiting Writer, is a Professor of International History at the University of Oxford. Her gift for bringing history to life is hailed by readers and critics, especially in Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, her landmark book about the peace process following the First World War.

“We historians are, in a way, great gossips,” said MacMillan. “We love details of the past and we have a passion about humanity. We find history highly entertaining. And that is what I try to deliver to my readers.”

MacMillan explained that history reminds us that very clever people have in the past been very wrong. According to MacMillan this pushes us to question our own convictions and treat them with humility.

“History is the key to understanding ourselves and others, said MacMillan. “It gives important warnings: if we behave in a certain way, we must brace ourselves to expect certain consequences. Most importantly, it reminds us that values we hold dear right now are not fixed.”

MacMillan pointed out that it is not easy for history to find its place today. People’s sheer indifference towards history begins in school, where students discover that too much history, too many dates and too many events, can be oppressive. We must find a way to remember without having grievances.

“Yes, people in the past are very different from us. Yes, they lived in an entirely different world. What we must remember is that they are still very much human.”

By taking her audience through a historic journey, MacMillan demonstrates that in addition to history forcing us to examine our own views and our own identities, it teaches us how to think through difficult situations. It warns us that there are always alternatives and gives some indications of the future.

MacMillan said her reason for writing about history is that it entertains.

“As a child I simply liked listening to the stories, reading the historic novels. Then as I became older, I liked telling stories,” said MacMillan. “Later on, when I became a teacher, I realized that in order to grab the attention of my students, I had to interest them, I had to entertain them.”

The Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Writers Program, which made MacMillan’s visit possible, is housed in the Faculty of Humanities at the U of C. It aims to help advance the careers of Calgary writers and enrich the local writing community through extended residency programs.

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