Sunday, June 26, 2005

The speech of dusty pages

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
- George Santayana

One tends to wonder about the purpose of teaching history – indeed this is a question which many a school student must have raised in tragic rhetoric. The purpose of teaching history, it is averred, is to teach future generations about the past. But to teach them what?

If one views a community as a collection of individuals with a shared characteristic, then one sees nations as entities defined by historical happenstance, their boundaries drawn by the words of a treaty, the straight edge of a ruler (as in the states of the USA) or a congregation of people who speak the same tongue (as in the states of India). As Prince Clement Metternich said, “Italy is a geographical expression.” A lot of history is taught to give people a sense of heritage, of pride in where they come from – but that reduces history to a tool to whip up jingoistic fervour. One must know where one came from to know where one must go. But where are nations headed? To further divisions (witness the collapse of the USSR) or to unification (the unification of Germany, or Vietnam)?

In today’s world of largely democratic countries, what does it avail to know the dynastic manipulations of past monarchs, except as a tool to understand and predict the behaviour of other men of great power and vanity. What can we learn from Alexander’s conquest of Porus? It is a useful lesson in military tactics, and also instructive as to how to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, or how to handle loss with dignity. But are these the aspects that are emphasized? Rarely.

In terms of applied history, one might recommend Machiavelli, or Balthasar Gracian, who use history as a wealth of experience, of successes and mistakes from which one may learn, and thus become a Prince, or Hero.

The plethora of details one memorizes in school rarely serves any purpose. The true function of dates in history is that of milestones. They serve to plot a timeline, to observe how effect succeeded cause, to show how simultaneous events in other parts of the globes slowly (or quickly) made their influence felt.

No, history makes sense if one views it as a struggle between forces, between such factors such religion, nationalism (or other collective isms) and economics. A good illustration of this idea may be found in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. History is the story of Man, and what must be learnt are the lessons that man has learnt, or is still learning: the lessons of colonialism and slavery, of gender equality, of racism and genocide, of the progress of science and its influence. The little details are important, but they must be seen in the light of the bigger picture, and the interplay understood.

I end this minor rant with a passage from “The Man in the Moon”, a short story by Peter Ustinov. The story is of a British scientist, John Kermidge, who has developed a rocket to take man to the moon, but has been asked by his government to withhold the details from his fellow scientists for the sake of national pride and military security:

' John began speaking slowly, trying hard to control his voice, which was quivering. “I hold no brief for American scientists, or for Russian scientists, or for British scientists for that matter. I have friends and enemies in all camps, since to the true men of science there are no frontiers, only advances; there are no nations, only humanity. This may sound subversive to you, but it is true, and I will explain, as temperately as I can, why it is true, what has made it true. You, sir, talked of Columbus. In his day, men for all their culture, fine painting, architecture, humanism, the rest, were still relatively savage. Life was cheap. Death was the penalty for a slight misdemeanour, slavery the penalty for an accident of birth. And why? Because there was space to conquer, horizons full of promise. Conquest was the order of the day. The avid fingers of Britain, France, Spain and Portugal stretched into the unknown. Then, abruptly, all was found, all was unravelled. Germany and Italy attempted to put the clock back, and behaved as everyone had once behaved, and were deemed criminal for no other reason that that they were out of date and that their internal persecutions were carried out against men of culture, and white men at that, instead of against their colonial subjects. They were condemned by mankind, and rightly so, because they were hungry for glory at a time when other nations were licking their chops, sated by a meal which had lasted for centuries. And why did we all become so civilised, so abruptly? Because, sir, there was nothing left to conquer, nothing left to seize without a threat of general war; there was no space left.” John mopped his brow briefly and continued. “Now what has happened? We have become conscious of space again. Cheated of horizons down on earth, we have looked upwards and found horizons there. What will that do to us? It will put us back to pre-Columbian days. It will be the signal for military conquest, for religious wars. There will be crusades for a Catholic moon, a Protestant moon, a Muslim moon, a Jewish moon. If there are inhabitants up there, we will persecute them mercilessly before we begin to realize their value. You can’t feel affection for a creature you have never seen before, especially if it seems ugly by our standards. The United Nations will lose all control, because its enemy is the smell of space in the nostrils of the military. Life will become cheap again, and so will glory. We will put the clock back to the days of darkness, and our growing pains in the stratosphere will be at least as painful as those we suffered here on earth. I want no part of it.”

The Prime Minister looked at him with genuine affection and offered him another cigar, which he accepted automatically, with a shaking hand.

“You are looking at the world with the eyes of a historian,” said the Prime Minister, “but the world is not run by historians. It is a luxury we cannot afford. We can’t study events from such a comfortable distance, nor can we allow ourselves to be embittered so easily by the unfortunate parallels and repetitions of history. As a historian, you are no doubt right, since you look back so far in order to look forward, but as a politician you are wrong, you are wrong as a patriot.”

“I have no ambitions as a patriot,” John answered. “I want to be a man the world is proud of.”

“You are young,” said the Prime Minister, lighting a match for John. “Incidentally, the Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed an urgent desire to meet you.”

“I knew it,” cried John, “a Church of England moon!”'