Why History? What is History?


This is a letter addressed to the learners at The Integral School, Hyderabad, who researched on the Silk Road. I had the pleasure of watching you research on the silk road, taking care to do my best impersonation of a cat on a hot tin roof whenever i saw that you became aware of me watching you. I read through your documents and thought I will like to share some of my thoughts with you. I thought a letter might be a good medium to share as a letter can be impersonal (or not), and gives you the freedom to think over without the obligation of a reaction.Besides, you know how loath I am to actually let words pass my lips.

The study of history remains a core subject in most educational curricula across most educational settings. As someone who is interested in what students aim to learn, I have always wondered what makes students learn history? Why learn the past when we are constantly exhorted to be in the present and not worry about the future? Why learn history? Why should that be a core subject?

Subjects for study are usually chosen based on some justification. The study of languages maybe justified by the need to communicate and that sitting in isolated silence is not really the cup of tea for the majority. The study of math maybe justified by the need to have a deeper understanding of the blocks that build the universe, logic and, for some of us, the need to be really terrified of something.  The study of science may be justified by the need to understand the world around us and the need to find ways to “improve” what is already good.  The study of art may be justified by the need to understand ways for creative expressions and to express beauty while realizing that beauty and ugly are both the same sides of the same mirror. The study of geography may be justified by the need to understand the physical world we inhabit and the way they interact with the way we evolve. Why study history?

Take the question to the stakeholder, I hear. I have spent a considerable amount of time asking learners “Why History?”. The majority of them have looked at me as if i am the bug that crawled from under the flower pot when they expected some weed to peep out instead. Fun pooper. Some of them have told me that it is because history is full of stories and they love a good story (especially when they do not have to do a production or a critical analysis of it).  Some of them were honest enough to admit that “History is full of facts. In the past. And that is safe for us because we cannot change any of that, we just have to say, “well, that is the way it happened. Not my fault.  I was not there”, or “I do not have to prove anything, no logic, no reasoning, no formulas, no weird symbols, just facts.” Some were brutally honest to say “Because”.  Not a because with a pause, but a because with a full stop. A pause gives you a window to explore but a plain, full blown apparently simple full stop? That just stops you in your tracks. And I wondered, so why do you do history? Why did you research the Silk Road?  And strange as it may sound, I thought to myself “Why do I look at history?” This letter shares some of my thoughts as i explored the answer to that question.

I cannot deny the story in history. After all, that is how history came about. The description of his story (even though her story was almost always more interesting). Interesting, isn’t it, the propagation of his story while suppressing her story and voice for the most part. History is a wonderful story, of people and societies, in times past. The evolution of physical and mental faculties (or shall i say, infrastructure?). The evolution of ideas, thoughts, culture, and the decline of the same.  A story about change. Change that did not wait for anyone and happened irrespective. History was a good story.  However, a good story is not good without a context. History was a good story with a context. A good story with a context is good only when the context and story is communicated well. History was a good story with a context that was communicated well.  To communicate, we need to have clarity of thought and the ability to share those thoughts. History was a good story with a context, communicated well, because there was a verbal or written documentation that allowed sharing of thoughts about the times. The good stories were passed along. The “poorly developed” stories die a natural death. No one passes them along.

History was language.

When the language flowered and expressed itself in words, or images, or relics, history was now art and entertainment (depending on the box seats you got tickets to).  History gave you the chance to lean over, look at the characters, the places, and think “What if?” and try to imagine changes. History allowed you to have a birds eye view of people (like us) and how societies (like the ones we live in) actually functioned. Did they love like we did, dislike as we did, “improve” as we did? Were they different? From the external and the internal? History allows you to see how people constructed their lives in the past and maybe just reflect “Have we really evolved from that time?”

History was language, art, entertainment while engaging the mind. The ability to construct and create blocks of societies and lives (an architectural beauty, if you will) and multiple perspectives.

Sometimes, the study of history is bound to identity. This is who we are, and this is who we were. Can you see the transition from there to here? The past is thrown at us to let us know “Who are we”? and may be find some pride in that. History can tell us about how the building blocks of families, communities, societies, and countries were formed and deformed. The modern use of that is of course, the rather ubiquitous, “Do you know who my father is?” but then history does try to transcend identity beyond that. I do not know, i thought the use of identity as a crutch for history limits in a lot of ways, Useful in some sense, maybe, but limiting.  I wonder how you feel.

Does History encourage math? Everyone who has had to memorize meaningless dates and period and timelines may well state “History abuses math”. And the mathematicians may well go into apoplexy and say, there is more to math than numbers even as those of us terrified of numbers squeal, like what? But then, there is a  lot of math in history from the evolution of numbers in societies (maybe not numbers as we use them today), in the use of math as a means of communication, math as a tool for precision, math as a tool for understanding. if you look carefully at history, you can see math gleefully smirking at you (you can check in but you can never check out) without any guitar riffs.

I must confess, I looked (and still look) at history for more. More than what the boxes in the curricula gave me.

I look at history to develop my ability to collect, assess, assimilate evidence further. To explore, find, and connect evidence.  Dissect the layers of the story. Dissect the interpretations of the story. Learning to distinguish the wheat from the chaff. Learning to combine different parts of the story or different evidence- public statements, private records, numerical data, visual images, physical relics, multiple perspectives and interpretations – to make a coherent story or better sense of an apparently coherent story. If you look at it carefully, that is how your life is built even in this modern times. Life is not a google search though it seems so. You still need to interpret.

Which brings me to, I look at history to develop my ability to assess interpretations. I use history to build my skill in sifting through and making sense of diverse, conflicting interpretations of the same material. Societies are inherently imperfect, how can the study of societies be perfect or precise? History allows me to develop my skills to interpret the interpretations.  History gives me a safe lab to explore these interpretations. Controlled information, controlled locations, controlled past with no control over the word controlled. Hm. Almost like a science lab. Learning to interpret interpretations is a skills that is widely necessary in these times as in the past, and something we actually do (knowingly or unknowingly) every day. I look at history to further develop this skill. Including my interpretations of morality and ethics.

I also look at history to further develop my skills to assess change. I grew up listening to the mantra “Life is changing, Times are changing, In our times…..” You get the sense. I live now hearing the same mantra repeated to my children (and to me, still-I guess i only physically look like an adult). But what is change? What has changed? What important thing has changed? I look at history to try and discern what apparently continues even in the midst of the ever present “change”. What leads to the change, is that really a change, or is that just another newly clothed version of an old story, what consequences do the changes have? I look at history to identify, well, what is really important in this ocean of change.

But then, I look at history to bring all of this back to myself. To me, as a person, to my identity from a place to further my interpretations of who I am. I look for a broadened perspective, a better understanding that the version of the truth that I apparently see and believe in may not be different from other versions of the truth that exist, the ability to see and understand multiple perspectives,  to understand that diverse sources exist and to realize that amidst all the change, somethings remain impermanently permanent and some remain permanently impermanent. I look to improve my understanding and telling of a story (you can see that really needs serious work), to improve language, communication, visual interpretations, and the ability to see a story in any and every “small” thing. Even a speck of dust has a story to share if you care to listen.

History, allows me to play to my hearts content in a lab of human experience with many mirrors that reflect who I may be.

I look at history to better understand the way I interpret myself (including, do you really have to write letters).

Why do you look at history?

What conversations did the silk road share with you?

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