Sunday, 1 February 2015

Changing how history is taught could change its course benignly

History, quipped Henry Ford, is more or less bunk, meaning not that it is garbage but rather that one should make history today by living in the present and ignoring tradition. "The only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today," he said. Yet if humanity is to progress righteously by making history today it is manifestly clear that history's lessons must be learned if its mistakes are not to be repeated. As the Spanish philosopher, Santyana, remarked: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Tragically, such ignorance of the past leads to continuation of modern and ancient ills like extremism, intolerance, pogroms, oppression, discrimination and xenophobia -- proving that history's valuable lessons are routinely ignored. Yet could a difference be made if history were taught differently in schools from secondary level and made mandatory?

The perceived problem with history teaching, it seems, is that it tends to confine students to study only their own country's history and only then for a very short history period. Moreover, there is always a risk that in closed, undemocratic societies the subject will be distorted and perverted for political and religious ends. The subject could also be viewed by many students as boring and dry. If, however, much more emphasis was placed on how history was fundamentally changed over the long term, ultimately for the better, embracing many nationalities and groups that mixed to cause and enrich such changes it would surely give students a less prejudiced view of other nationalities, religions and cultures -- cutting the risks from xenophobia, religious bigotry and racism. It would also make history more interesting.

Even today, invasions and wars begin which show why, if history's lessons had been given due cognizance, they could have been avoided and arguably no better current example of that, in logistics terms particularly, is the Afghan war. This harsh, arid, unforgiving, landlocked country, perfectly designed to confound invaders, made the logistics of supply not only breathtakingly costly but a nightmare. Twice before over the last 200 years the Afghans have humbled two world powers, Britain and Russia, whose arrogance seemingly ignored appalling logistical problems, and again, today, a coalition of world powers has been humbled as they leave with little to show for the blood and gold shed and an uncertain future for the Afghans.  

The teaching of world history spanning millennia does, of course, present its own kind of logistical problems for students, like finding the time and teachers, who themselves may lack understanding of the vast scope of historicity. The problem could be eased, however, if national history was downplayed in favour of global, human and natural events that fundamentally changed the course of history far more than emperors, monarchs and other panjandrums.

Henry Ford himself could have done with such history lessons that might have tempered his well-known anti-Semitic views and their odious connexion involving use of slave labour in Nazi Germany's Ford factories, even before America entered the war. Great men also make great mistakes and the greatest of these often stem from ignorance of history and its disturbing infant of arrogance.

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