Opinion | Why a nation and its people must know their true history

History, history writing and history teaching have, indeed, become newsworthy not only in India but also in most other parts of the world. T...

History, history writing and history teaching have, indeed, become newsworthy not only in India but also in most other parts of the world. The reasons may be varied — construction of a National History Curriculum in India, England and Wales, the design of National History Standards in the US, the content of history textbooks in Japan, China, Korea, Pakistan, Israel, and Germany, the approach to invasion of Latin American countries by the Europeans, the development of new curricula in the successor states of the former USSR, or even the rewriting of history textbooks in Russia after the collapse of the former USSR. Issues of identities, heritage, and citizenship, all rooted in the past, have become the hot stuff of politics.

Similarly, an issue can be raised about the conquest of peaceful people belonging to Inca, Aztec and Maya civilisations by the gun-trotting Europeans. Whether the victory should be viewed as the discovery of a new world and new economic resources for Europe, as is generally viewed by European and North American historians, or it should be seen as the destruction of the independently developed three native civilisations by technologically more advanced nations that have an unending lust for looting others’ treasures and making other people subservient.

A South American historian may well say: “It may be a subject of celebrations for Europeans but for us it is a subject of mourning because just in a few years the Europeans destroyed our civilisation developed over several thousands of years!”

Why Study History

Questions have often been raised that when there are so many problems and differences of opinions among historians why should we study history at all.

History is all about the past. In almost every country, city, town and village throughout the world, a large number of existing buildings were built in the past to meet the needs and aspirations of people, now dead. This is most obvious in existing temples, churches, mosques, fireplaces, houses, public buildings, and so on. The systems of governments, political ideas, religious beliefs, art, architecture, cultural practices, educational systems, customs and behaviours are all products of the past, recent or remote.

The past is all-pervasive which, indeed, means that we cannot escape from it. The past signifies what actually happened—events that have taken place, societies that have risen and fallen, ideas and institutions, eating habits, dressing habits, etc. History is precisely the study of this human past. The past is our heritage; we are part of it and the past is part of us in all aspects: Be it culture, behaviour, religious faith and practices, be it rituals, be it the tradition of political, social and economic systems. It is reflected in our day-to-day living.

History is also about roots. It provides societies and individuals with a dimension of longitudinal meaning over time which outlives the human life span. It connects us with our past. History also allows us to peep into the future by providing precedents for contemporary actions and forewarning against the repetition of past mistakes. From its sense of continuity, history offers the apparent form and purpose to the past, the present and the future. In the words of EH Carr: “The past is intelligible to us only in the light of the present, and we can fully understand the present only in the light of the past.” He further says that history is needed “to enable man to understand the society of the past and to increase his mastery over the society of the present.” There is a need for history. It has a deeper social value and meaning.

The study of history is not a luxury. It is a necessity. This necessity has been best summed up by Arthur Marwick. He writes: “Individuals, communities, societies could scarcely exist if all knowledge of the past is wiped out. As memory is to the individual, so history is to the community or the society. Without memory, individuals find great difficulty in relating to others, in finding their bearings, in taking intelligent decisions — they lose their sense of identity. A society without history would be in a similar condition… A society without knowledge of its past would be like an individual without memory… It is only through a sense of history that communities establish their identity, orientate themselves, understand their relationship to the past and to other communities and societies. Without history (Knowledge of the past), we, and our communities, would be utterly adrift on an endless and featureless sea of time.”

We all move ahead through the past of our own cultures, own civilisations, and values and it is this accumulation of ideas and experience, transmitted through education and sheer daily living that gives our thoughts meaning and the patterns and purpose of our actions. It is not that we live in the past but we are defined by it, and so the success of even the most forward-looking developments must inevitably rest on their relation to the ideas and practices of the society they are meant to serve. Science may forget its own history, but a society cannot.

History is neither a simple chronicle of the past nor a list of rulers and kings and the narratives of their rules. The past is not simply a collection of distinct ages or a hotchpotch of facts. History is an extremely complex discipline. Another point that needs to be emphasised is that a historian’s job is not that of a cook who prepares dishes as per the liking of his customers and adds spices accordingly. It is not the job of a historian to write politically correct history. His obligation is to write factually correct history.

It will be helpful if all historians remember what Sir Jadunath Sarkar wrote about the job of a historian: “I would not care whether the truth is pleasant or unpleasant, and in consonance with, or opposed to, current views. I would not mind in the least whether the truth is, or is not, a blow to the glory of my country. If necessary, I shall bear in patience the ridicule and slander of friends and society for the sake of preaching the truth. But still, I shall seek truth, understand truth, and accept the truth. This should be the firm resolve of a historian.”

This brief discussion on the nature of history as an academic discipline should make it abundantly clear that history is neither a static discipline nor can the writings on and of history be put into a set mould. Each generation views and writes about the past in the light of its own experience. Therefore, all interpretations and explanations are and must be as temporary and provisional as the descriptions. But in all these endeavours the sanctity of truth and facts should not be forgotten. Unanimity or one’s efforts to make others surrender is a recognisable characteristic of dictatorships, and not that of a free state. Open and continuing discussions and debates are the essence and strength of history and, for that matter, a great strength of an open society of an intellectually vibrant nation.

And now a word of caution! There is a tendency among historians to act as judges and give moral sermons. Historians must write and rewrite history. They are not supposed to be moral judges. Benedetto Crose has rightly said: “Those, who on the plea of narrating history, bustle about as judges, condemning here and giving absolution there, because they think that this is the office of history… are generally recognised as devoid of historical sense.”

Problems in History Writing

Historians recognise that they are all culturally and socially influenced in their endeavour to write history but make all efforts to deny that their work is culturally, or socially, determined or constructed. As has been discussed briefly in the Introduction, EH Carr in Chapter II of his book What is History provides a useful summary on this aspect of history writing. He quotes Donne Devotion that society and individuals are inseparable. “No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Like any other individual, a historian too is a social phenomenon, both the product and the conscious and unconscious spokesperson of the society to which he belongs. It is in this capacity that he approaches the facts of the historical past.

Therefore, we must not forget that we cannot fully understand or appreciate the work of a historian unless we have first grasped the standpoint from which he himself approaches it, and that standpoint is itself rooted in social and historical background. It is, therefore, essential that before we study history, we must study the historian and study his historical and social environment. When some historians claim that they are writing scientific history, or that only their version of history is correct, one must conclude immediately that the historians are not only being untruthful but are also hiding their political agenda under the garb of a ‘scientific’ history. There exists nothing like scientific history. On similar lines, Benedetto Croce also spoke with his characteristic bluntness:

“The historian must have a point of view… an intimate personal conviction regarding the conception of the facts which he has undertaken to relate… It suffices to read any book of history to discover at once the point of view of the author if he is a historian worthy of the name and knows his own business… Absolutely historical historians do not and cannot exist. Can it be said that Thucydidus and Polybius, Livy and Tacitus, Machiavelli and Guicciardini, Giannone and Voltaire were without morals and political views; and in our own time, Guizot or Thiers, Macaulay or Balbo, Renke or Mommson?... If the historian is to escape from this inevitable necessity of taking sides, he must become a political and scientific eunuch; and history is not the business of eunuchs… Historians who profess to wish to interrogate the facts without adding anything of their own, are not to be believed.”

The problem with Marxist historiography and its relationship with history is much more curious. For Marx and his followers, i.e. Marxist historians, the problem of history is not just understanding ‘what happened', ‘how it happened’ and ‘why it happened’. For them, the problem is “how to change the world” by the use of history. At the core of this view lie two fundamental beliefs. Firstly, the Marxists believe in five universal stages of history.

These five stages are:

  1. Primitive Communism
  2. Slavery
  3. Feudalism
  4. Capitalism
  5. Communism

Secondly, they believe that the society we inhabit is a bad bourgeois society and, fortunately, this society is in a state of crisis. The good society which lies just around the corner can be easily attained if only ‘we’ work systematically to destroy the language, the value, the culture, the ideology of this ‘bourgeois’ society. This necessitates a massive, radical left-wing political programme, and everything the historians write, every criticism they make, is determined by that overriding objective. In this, the post-modernists are exceptions. They are fully convinced of the utterly evil nature of the ‘bourgeois’ society but have lost all hope of change and have fallen back into destructive nihilism. They assert that the only way to achieve Marxism is to destroy society if it cannot be changed.

Marxist historians have failed to understand and appreciate the fact that the society we live in has evolved through a complex historical process, very different from the Marxist formula of the rise of feudalism over slavery and bourgeoisie overthrowing the feudal aristocracy. It is highly complex with respect to the distribution of power, authority, and influence. Just as it was not formed by the simple overthrow of aristocracy by the bourgeoisie, so, in its contemporary form, it does not consist simply of a bourgeois ruling class and a proletariat. The idea that we are now in the final period of the late-capitalist crisis is simply absurd. Marxists have been looking forward to the final capitalistic collapse for over a century – in 1848, 1866, 1918, 1946, 1963 and 1968, to mention just a few dates, but as fate would have it, they are themselves doomed forever.

Statements like “The pursuit of history is, whether practitioners choose to acknowledge it or not, a political occupation,” indeed, is not only exceptional but also far-fetched. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that the experience of colonisation around the world has shown that domination by a more powerful culture—which defines its reality in quite different ways—either totally destroys, or at least drives, the less powerful ones into a subservient role. What was considered culturally ‘valid’ can be rendered ‘invalid’, and the politically weaker ones are somehow required to modify their reality to fit within the constraints of the new codes.

We, as historians, must learn to recognise: “The past is perceived in different ways by different cultures. Methods of interpreting, recording, managing and protecting the past also differ between cultures… The way people define their existence, their world view and their creation stories, and how they value, interpret, manage and transmit their past will continue to be handed on from generation to generation.”

Conclusions

Let us remember that no country can become a great nation, a world guru and a world leader on borrowed ideas, borrowed cultures and borrowed systems. The greatness and leaderships are built upon the solid foundations and the pride of the past; deeper the foundations, taller are the superstructures. Even globalisation is built upon this foundation. Many countries are part of globalisation on a much larger scale than India without abandoning their history, culture and heritage. It is on this basis they are able to assert their authority and influence the world order.

The writer is a well-known historian. Views expressed are personal.

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India World News: Opinion | Why a nation and its people must know their true history
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