Why We Need To Understand Our History

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” 

― George Orwell

On Friday, 15th August, India celebrated her 67th year of independence. Indians all over the world took pride in this day. But there was an article in a local magazine about the descendants of Indian freedom fighters. Most are struggling to keep the memories of their ancestors alive, as the sacrifices of those freedom fighters and their contribution to the struggle for freedom has been tucked into the obscure folds of history, their names long forgotten, their lives and acts of courage rendered invisible.

This freedom came at a huge price. Thousands of people, men, women, and children, sacrificed their lives so their country could be free, so that the generations that followed could live in a free country that has its own identity and enjoy freedom and rights that the freedom fighters could only dream about. They did not sacrifice their lives for fame or glory. But remembering them is the least we can do to honour their lives. Keeping their ideologies in our collective consciousness is essential to make their vision for the country become a reality. But how do you understand ideologies that are never mentioned in the history books? Journalist Shivnath Jha wrote a book that recorded the lives of 200 freedom fighters and their descendants. He said that while researching for his book, he interacted with schoolchildren in India and asked them about some of the relatively well known freedom fighters. The children were quick to reply that they are characters that certain famous actors played in films!

I’m not a history expert, but I’ve been trying hard to remember my history lessons from school. I remember reading about the freedom movement in India, about freedom movements in the world, about world wars and civil movements. But I could not remember beyond a few names and events. Few prominent people, whose entire life is summed up in a single grand event that changed humanity for good or bad. Even the people who do find mention in history books are limited to their association with an event or an incident in the past. Their individual lives, their thoughts, their ideas are never really understood. When I tried to remember the events, I realised their descriptions were limited to a few dates and a sequence of happenings. So we end up with single stories, and the various facets of those individuals and their cultural impact remains buried in time. If you think back to all the history you’ve learnt in school, you’ll probably realise as well, that our understanding of history is so myopic, we have no idea how we or our world came to be where it is today.

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Our history education in school gives no cultural context to the events that are listed as a mere series of dates. Dates and events are meaningless and impersonal when you don’t understand how it has affected the society, both then and now, how it has formed the views that people hold today, how entire civilisations and cultures were shaped by the decisions made, especially when those decisions were made by the few in power.

The history we learn in school glosses over collective trauma. Our view of our past and present is based on our limited knowledge of our history. The traumas that nations and people have gone through are never put under a magnifying glass, because a closer look may reveal darker moments of humanity and will force us to look at our history in all its shades of grey, instead of the reassuring view in black and white. In his essay, These Men Must be Monsters, history teacher and researcher Alexander McGregor describes it well.

“The problem now is that we have created a binary paradigm wherein the past must be squeezed into our all-prevailing Good versus Evil worldview. History becomes myth. But fighting an enemy that is evil does not make you good. That someone acts monstrously does not make him or her less human.”

In his article, McGregor gives examples from history and sheds light on how cultural context would change our perspective on those events and on history in general — certainly worth a read.

What about the role of women in history? Why is history about the “brave men who fought wars”, “the great leaders who rallied those brave men towards freedom”? When the cultural references to role of women in history comes in the form of Game of Thrones, where women being treated like objects and being raped does not even raise an eyebrow, how do we create a current view that sees women for the much bigger role they have played in history?

Of course, some will argue that those interested in such details can pursue higher education in history and study it in detail at college or university level. The problem is that by then history has already lost the interest of intelligent young minds in schools who have no idea how their society has come to be the way they see it. When they don’t understand how it came to be, how are they supposed to participate and contribute to it? Why should they care about wars fought way before their time? How are they supposed to appreciate the value of freedom and rights, when they already have it and don’t know who and what made it available to them? How are they supposed to connect with people who are still fighting for those rights and for freedom?

Isn’t it strange that our school education doesn’t give us enough in-depth knowledge of the cultures and societies of the world so we can form a complete worldview? Imagine if we really had a deeper understanding of history, of how our world was formed, of what actions in the past have led to the conflicts we see in our world today, would we so easily succumb to the truth-twisting tactics of the politicians, or the one-sided stories revealed by the media? Would we be so afraid of our own world, of our neighbours, of our fellow beings, who, just like us, have been victims of historical ignorance? Because if we understood our history, we would appreciate the story of the person who opposes our worldview, we would recognise why and how we both came to be here in this moment in the collective history of humanity. We would realise that both our stories are not about who wins or loses. Such knowledge brings the desire to fix the problems, to go deeper to the roots of issues and difference, instead of merely treating the symptoms, and develops tolerance and compassion. Understanding our history brings solutions instead of knee-jerk reactions that exacerbate historical differences. It’s time we make an effort to understand out history. As Ray Brandbury says,

“We’re going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask us what we’re doing, you can say, We’re remembering. That’s where we’ll win out in the long run. And someday we’ll remember so much that we’ll build the biggest goddamn steamshovel in history and dig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in it and cover it up.” 

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The Purpose Of Education

“Education should be the process of helping everyone discover his uniqueness, to teach him how to develop that uniqueness, and then to show him how to share it because that’s the only reason for having anything.”

– Leo Buscaglia

(Read more about Leo Buscaglia on Education, Industrialized Conformity, and How Stereotypes and Labels Limit Love )

Ask people who have had the opportunity to go to college and get a degree what that means to them. Their answer would range from “It’s just a piece of paper” to “It changed my life.” That’s because with the current education system, who we are seems to matter less and less.

 

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When I was starting high school in India, the school I studied in had four “packages” (it certainly seemed like that) and I needed to choose one to decide my career: 1) science, where you studied subjects like Physics, Chemistry, Maths and languages; 2) science, that added Biology to the rest of the Science subjects; 3) arts, where you learnt History, Literature and languages. Few other schools also offered a fourth package, commerce, where you learnt accounting, economics, business management and languages. I decided on studying commerce (seemed the best of the lot at that time). But my school didn’t have that option and my family was going to move soon. That, plus various other reasons, and I ended up taking science. I might have been rather good at it, but the problem was, I hated it. I had some horrible teachers and that didn’t help either. So when we moved, I went to a new school that offered commerce. I told the Principal at this new school that I would like to join the commerce classes and since it was just the beginning of the school year, I wouldn’t have missed much and I was very confident that I can make up for the missed lessons. The Principal looked at my grades from previous years and said, ‘You’ve done very well in science. That’s what you should do. I can’t let you change your subject. You’ll have to stay with science.” And that would have been the end of my dreams and my future life. She labelled me as a science student because, according to her, “I was intelligent enough to study science. So why would I think of studying any lesser subjects?” What I wanted to study did not matter. What I wanted to do with my life was not for me to decide. So for the first time in my life, I did terribly in school. I failed in every class, except for Maths and English, and that made me miserable. I saw my entire life crumbling before my eyes. Luckily for me, I had an amazing English teacher who pulled me out of the ground and encouraged me not to give up. With her help, I moved to another school. I studied commerce and did extremely well in it. I learnt a lot about myself from that experience. I know for a fact that who I am today would have been completely different if I had followed the path forced upon me and I would have lived the rest of my life regretting that path and hating the person I would have become.

 

“Often, it’s not about becoming a new person, but becoming the person you were meant to be, and already are, but don’t know how to be.” 

― Heath L. Buckmaster, Box of Hair: A Fairy Tale

Instead of identifying and nurturing a person’s natural abilities, education has become all about putting people in an existing box and neatly labelling them. It is wiping all traces of individuality from people and conformity is considered the norm. Our innate ability to be good at certain things is ignored for the sake of education that teaches everyone the same things and expects everyone to excel at all of those things. We go through life earning a degree, pursuing a career that earns us money, fame and success, because that’s what we are expected to do, and we never find time to understand who we are or what we really want from life. Our thoughts are myopic and never go past what we think we need, to be “successful in life”. When life is going smoothly, that’s not so bad. But when we face difficult choices, when we have to make life changing decisions, how we think, what choices we make and what lessons we choose to learn from our life experiences are the true measures of how educated we are.

 

“To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul.” 

― Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

 

Education has come to rely solely on intellectual analysis and arguments. We are so focused on creating our “perfect world” outside that we don’t take time to think about what’s inside. Instead of directing our thoughts and our mind, we end up being directed by it. The difference is the same as living life consciously and deriving meaning from it, as opposed to going through life in a trance, without any sense of purpose, being tossed between highs and lows, feeling lost and alone.

Education is not just about morals. It’s about the ability to create a sustainable belief system. By sustainable, I don’t mean throwaway beliefs, ideas that you can easily replace in order to maintain. I’m talking about strong beliefs that can stand the tests of all that life flings at us. Why is it important? Imagine you have to make a difficult decision about doing something unethical, or illegal even. Other than the fear of the law, what will give you the courage to do the right thing and be really happy in life? Your top-notch college degree that feeds your ambition to succeed by whatever means necessary, or the strength of your own beliefs that tells you what’s right and what’s wrong at every turn of your life consistently and the self-confidence that comes with it?

A word of warning though, it’s easy to confuse educated confidence with arrogance. Dogmatic religious ideologies are a living proof of it. Keeping an open mind is just as important a part of education as the spirit of conviction. Blind beliefs are dangerous. They make us so arrogant that we lock ourselves away from anything that could make us see the chinks in our belief-armour. Faith in the broadest sense is not meant to keep the world out and make us prisoners of our own beliefs. It’s meant to keep us free and unaffected amongst the chaos in the world. Yes, it might be simpler to remove ourselves from the world. But how will we ever learn anything by doing that? How will that possibly ever allow us to really LIVE?

Writer David Foster Wallace, in his 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address, talked about the real value of education and how it teaches us to think. He started his speech with this simple, yet profound story:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”

And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

(Read the complete transcript of his speech)

That’s the purpose of education, to be acutely aware of realities that are hidden in plain sight. That’s why true education is a lifelong pursuit. It teaches us the ability to stay awake everyday of our lives and to choose the things that are really worth pursuing, to choose the thoughts that go beyond the knowledge that the obvious world presents before us, and as Wallace said at the end of his speech, to remind ourselves to be like the older fish in the story and constantly tell ourselves that “This is water”.