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.

Image of a clock with faces
Photo Credit: Vincent_AF via Compfight cc

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.”