Uses of History
WE grew up in a sort of permanent present. We may forget the past or be ambivalent about what had happened.
We too remember a past -- constructed out of minds, myths and what actually happened.
In my previous column (Jan 5), I asked "Why study history?" and "Why history?" I then answered the question, beginning with the history of science to illustrate change, progress, regress and myths. The layman may not be conscious of the mechanics of the past. They are not historians.
And therefore it is left to historians to remember what others forget. Historians must be more than simply chroniclers, remembrancers and compilers.
They must task themselves to understand and explain why things turned out they way they did, and of the relationships.
Celebrated 20th century history scholar Eric Hobsbawm, who has lived through all or most of what he called the Short Twentieth Century, describes his profession as "inevitably also an autobiographical endeavour" in The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 (first published 1994, and reprinted numerous times to date). It is about amplifying (and correcting) our own memories.
We are frequently short-changed when the study of history lends itself to the public sphere in the country.
We are told that the reason for the study of history is to instil patriotism -- the love of one's county and subsequently the appreciation of those who defended and built the nation, and occasionally to understand the multicultural nature of Malaysia.
The problem in Malaysia is a subconscious focus on textbook history. The nation's history dwells in school books -- a history much driven by the thinking that every postcolonial nation state must have a "new" history -- a new narrative confined to the territorial boundaries created earlier.
If history is a representation of the past, the discipline and practice of history itself needs to be represented. Hobsbawm tells us about history in On History, first published in 1997 and reprinted many times since 1999. Engaged in the theory, practice, development and relevance of history to the modern world, Hobsbawm's lifelong concern was relations between past, present and future -- his relationship as historian, university teacher and human being. His last two positions were at Birkbeck College, University of London and the New School for Social Research in New York.
What can history tell us about ourselves? Some lessons from On History are as follows:
- We need and use history even if we do not know why.
- All historical study implies making a selection, a tiny selection, of some things out of the infinity of human activities in the past, and of what affected those activities.
- Historians operate in the grey zone where the investigations of what is -- even the choice of what is -- is constantly affected by who we are and what we want to happen or not to happen.
- All human beings and societies are rooted in the past -- that of their families, communities, nations, or other reference groups, or even of personal memory -- and all define their position in relation to it, positively or negatively.
- History is not ancestral memory or collective tradition. It is what we learnt from school history textbooks, history teachers, the clergy, media articles,
- television and radio programmes and cyberspace. We are indeed, conscious of the past, by virtue of living with people older than ourselves.
- To be a member of any human community is to situate oneself with regard to one's past, if only by rejecting it. The past is therefore a permanent dimension of the human consciousness, an inevitable component of institutions, values and other patterns of human society
- History assumes that the past provided the model for reconstructing it in a satisfactory form. The old days were defined -- often still are as the good old days, and that is where society should return to.
- The return to the past is either the return to something so remote that it has to be reconstructed, a "rebirth" or "renaissance" of classical antiquity, after many centuries of oblivion.
- The purpose of tracing the historical evolution of humanity is not to foresee what will happen in future, even though historical knowledge and understanding are essential to anyone.
- For the greater part of history, we deal with societies and communities for which the past is essentially the patterns for the present. Ideally, each generation copies and reproduces its predecessor so far as is possible, and considers itself as falling short of it, so far as it fails in this endeavour.
- Can continents have a history as continents? Let us not confuse politics, history and geography, especially not in the case of these shapes on the pages of atlases, which are not natural geographical units, but merely human names for parts of the global land mass.
- Forgetting, even getting history wrong, is an essential factor in the formation of a nation, which is why the progress of historical studies is often a danger to nationality -- for nations are historically novel entities pretending to have existed for a very long time. Inevitably, the nationalist version of their history consists of anachronism, omission, decontextualisation and, in extreme cases, lies. To a lesser extent, this is true of all forms of identity history, old or new.
Men and women, living in a particular time and place, are involved, in various ways, in its history as actors in its dramas, however seemingly insignificant our parts are -- as observers of our times, and, not least, as people whose views of the century have been formed by what we have come to see as its crucial events. Hobsbawm (1994), commenting against the background of the two world wars and the Cold War, observes that the past is indestructible.
Public events are part of the textures of our lives. They are not merely markers in our private lives, but what has formed our lives, private and public. Hobsbawm was 15 years old when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.
Jan 30, 1933 was not just an event. For him as historian, it was not the past, but the past as part of his permanent present.
A. Murad Merican NST Channels Learning Curve Perspective 02/02/2014