Does genealogy make you a better person?

In the middle of a recent panel discussion,  the words “genealogy makes you a better person” emerged from my mouth. My fellow-panellists, and a fair number of the audience, looked at me as if I had just announced that the moon was made of cheddar, politely ignored the remark and moved on to saner topics.

He got the halo by finding his granny. Click for more detail.

Nobody was more surprised by the remark than myself. It has depressing echoes of the hoary adolescent debate about the utility of art. Does reading and appreciating a great poem have any moral effect? A long time ago, after half a decade spent in the company of third-level teachers of literature, I came to the conclusion that the answer was No. If anything, spending your professional life immersed in great writing appears to have the opposite effect. Pettiness and spite seem to be pettier and more spiteful among specialists in literature than anywhere else.


A common effect of genealogical research

And, on the surface, genealogy is hardly much better. Cranks and shysters make up a disproportionate number of us. Our committee wars are acrimonious and interminable, following the axiom “the smaller the teacup, the bigger the storm”. The goal of our research is not disinterested truth but more information about ourselves and our families.

And yet the very process of family history research, its sheer amateurishness, does have a strong positive effect, at least on some people. It teaches that we are all mongrels, providing a powerful antidote to snobbery and racism. It shows that history is not a simple competition between good guys and bad guys and, by extension, that neither is the present. It provides a powerful emotional antidote to social atomisation.

Maybe some nuance is needed: the study of ancestors won’t make bad people good.  But it can make decent people more decent.

17 thoughts on “Does genealogy make you a better person?”

  1. I absolutely believe this. Learning who you come from, and their stories, shows how connected we are. DNA reveals that race is an illusion, and we are all one big family with our quirks, our goodness and our failings. I see my own family history in the struggles of current immigrants -that should give us all more understanding and compassion.

  2. I’m a little surprised that in this discussion about the moral affects of genealogy we make no comment about the inducements to volunteering that flow from genealogy. We would need another legion to count the number of volunteer transcribers, grave finders, Facebook admins, librarians, etc who facilitate engagement in modern genealogy. Thanks volunteers!

  3. My genealogy research has proved that I have no business being a “snob”, as I come from a long line of peasants……a humbling experience, but one I somehow knew existed. If one family member hadn’t made that decision to emigrate, my life would be vastly different.

    The other value of genealogy research in my experience, is the absolute need to understand the history of the era, what drove your ancestors to make the choices they made, how did they live, the history of the moment, etc.

    I can proudly say that I’ve visited my direct ancestors home villages in the UK and Eire, and stood in their shadows……a truly humbling experience

  4. Thanks, John! And I echo the comments. Genealogy has had a very positive effect on me since getting into it over the last year.

  5. Mr. Grenham …could this possibly mean that I do not have to feel guilty spending my time (a lot actually) looking out for all those ancestors that came before me? 🙂

  6. Fine thoughts & actually backed up by research in Psychology. Most of us are made happier by doing for others (even though it also benefits us).
    Re: nastiness on committees, it brings to mind the old saying that “Academic battles are so viscious because there’s so little at stake.”

  7. I enjoyed your article as it confirmed my own conclusions about snobbery. I suffered from what might be called reverse snobbery. I was PROUD to be descended from people of humble origins – no rich folks or royal lineage for me, No Sir! However as my research progressed, I discovered the odd not so humble ancestor. Hmmm. Then I finally identified my paternal great-grandmother, whose families included those who were the complete opposite of humble origins with royalty and upper class just dripping off the pages. As they say, “Pride goeth before a fall”. I am now neither filled with overweening pride, nor snobbery – just very greatful to ALL my wonderful ancestors. Except for one thing – 40,000 years of evolution in my families and I’m the best they could end up with??!!

  8. Good point, John. It seems to me that seeing the parade of events and crises in the past generations does give us perspective on our more mundane, perceieved crises. But, too, an understanding of history in general renders us all a bit more humble.

  9. Genealogy does indeed teach us that we are all mongrels, and DNA reveals that we might not even be who we think we are ! Insightful as usual – thank you John.

  10. I have met the nicest people I know since I began researching my family tree – although since I am, at this time, trying to find the first immigrant to British America (no USA until 4 July 1776) and verifying where, when, why, how, and their home country. I also realize the unapproachable expense of researching over ‘the pond’ and the fact that English is my only language. However, there were just two families I have found, so far (and I have found over 210 original immigrants) where I would need to read German. The rest are Scots, Scots/Irish, Irish, Welsh and English but now I know why there was so much Irish in my DNA and I can claim descent from several well known ‘rebels’.
    As a member of the original Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness working from the books I have at home since I no longer drive, I found that kindness is as close as my computer where I was able to connect with many kind people who lived in the area where my ancestors lived and charging only for their copying expense (a very few wanted more), I was able to collect wills, marriages, estate records and deeds all over the south where my ancestors settled. As a result of the kindness I found I decided to volunteer and was able to help others locate Revolutionary War soldiers in Virginia. Now I have more books and can assist with other Virginia research but the original group is gone, although a new one is active on Facebook. My desk and bookshelves are stacked high with books on Virginia genealogy, and I just wish that I was called on more often.
    Yes, the best people I know are just like me, hoping to break down one more brick wall, even if just one brick at a time.

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