Learning from hubris in history: International Young Historians' Conference 2016
Victoria Ivory Birrell
Eric Hobsbawm once stated that, “Nations without a past are contradictions in terms. What makes a nation is the past … and historians are the people who produce it.” Hobsbawm was highlighting the need for us to be distinctly aware of our history because ultimately it defines who we are as people and as a society. But Hobsbawm was also telling us that historians are the people who paint our impressions of the past, and that this role in itself comes with a great weight of responsibility.
This exact responsibility was placed on the shoulders of students at the International Young Historians’ Conference (IYHC) 2016. IYHC is arguably the only conference in the world of its kind, and this year’s third conference was our most ambitious yet. Taking place across the span of two days (the 5th and 6th of March), this year’s conference saw 50 students from 10 different schools across three countries present in front of an audience of 70 peers. The conference provided an invaluable opportunity for students to hone their skills as historians. Through research papers, presentations and discussions we were able to form connections with other students who shared similar passions.
The theme for this year’s conference was “Hubris in History.” Prior to the conference, participants submitted a 2,000 word essay on a question of their choosing that addressed any aspect of the conference theme. Indeed, the conference itself was really the culmination of months of thought, reflection, collaboration and hard work. At the event itself, the essays and their authors were arranged into thematic panels on topics including Imperialism, The Great Man Theory, Modernisation and Stagnation, and Terrorand Authoritarianism. Each young historian delivered a 10-minute version of their essay before facing a dynamic and engaging series of Q&A sessions.
Through a melting pot of questions, themes and topics, the IYHC allowed us to puncture misconceptions about the past. The range of well researched papers took us to places such as Ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, Vietnam, Germany, Russia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Afghanistan, the US, Iraq and China. Cautionary tales were told about ISIS, nationalism, greed, famine and foreign policy. In other words, we were compelled to challenge our preconceived remembrances and asked to reconstruct old ideas under a new light. And for all that, there was novelty too. Who knew that Perkin Warbeck used his physical attractiveness to legitimise his claim to the English throne in the 16th century?
Alongside papers and presentations, this year saw the introduction of seminar sessions, facilitated by students for students, on topics such as the role of an historian and the pitfalls of evidence. We were also asked to devise our dream history programme. There was genuine passion in the room during these sessions. Students from Beijing, Malaysia and Singapore, students from international and local schools, students from grades 10, 11 and 12 were all sat together for the same reason, eager to learn from each other, eager to share. Indeed, the plenary sessions that followed the seminars, in which each group shared its thoughts with the others, were remarkable not simply for the ideas discussed but for the sense of community generated in the room. We may have started the conference as strangers but we ended as friends.
Ultimately, the most significant piece of learning that we all took away from this year’s conference was that those who allow hubris to consume them are condemned to view history through a sullied lens, unable to differentiate between the path they choose and those roads that have led to failure in the past. But those that embrace challenges with modesty and openness can help to shape a better world.