Wednesday 20 January 2010

Essential to the Present: Keeping One Eye on the Past

As a society, our past is not paid the attention it should be, and this means we struggle to understand our present, or predict our future. On a certain level, the reason for this obvious: We tend to have enough trouble just dealing with the present. But it is still deeply unsatisfactory and, I would say, dangerous. This is connected to understanding both our present and our future. How can we predict the future from the present, if we don't understand how the present has developed from the past?

I hope that saying, as a society, 'we do not have a great understanding of our past', is not a very controversial claim. Perhaps never before have even relatively educated sections of our society had so little idea of the full sweep of our History, whether of Britain, or the whole World. Pick almost anyone at random, and they are probably largely unable to describe either the broad sweep of history over the millennia, or its details, outside perhaps a few very specific periods. I believe this sad fact is a simple consequence of a few factors. Firstly, the decline of the ideal of what can be called the 'Renaissance Man': that an educated person should be generally well informed and skilled to call themselves educated. Education has become increasingly specialised, to the great benefit of economic and technical pursuits, but to the cost of an understanding of the background of our society and the wider world. This can be seen at school where beyond GCSE most subjects are just abandoned and specialisation really sets in. Secondly, and connected, is the commercialisation of education, meaning education seen as something undertaken for purely for economic benefits, rather for any ennobling, character enhancing reasons. The Humanities in general suffer particularly from a combination of both effects.

This process is intensified by the manner in which history is taught in the modern day, for the little time it is obligatory. That is, by intense concentration on a few isolated segments or periods of history, without any overview of how the whole, rolling, continuous human story fits together. For all its possible benefits this method has a crippling deficiency. I do not know how to quite explain it except by analogy. Our method of teaching history is like teaching pupils about America by intensely drilling them on the social, economic and political facts of North Dakota, South Carolina and Utah, but nothing about the country as a whole, whether its government, its shape, where it came from, or what stands for or anything else. Even among A-Level or University students of history, the general ignorance is often maintained, outside the particular few areas they have studied in such detail, unless they have a strong natural interest that they pursue more broadly in their own time.

I think few would disagree that most people know only a small amount of history, whether ancient or comparatively recent. Far more people, however, may question why this ignorance of the Past really matters at all. To answer this, I first appeal to another analogy. We consider a person who has entirely lost their memory, or even for whom their memory is particularly weak or failing, as a person who is profoundly disabled. This is for the obvious reason that they can neither truly know or appreciate who they are, or have the resources of knowledge and experience to apply to the situations they meet now or in the future. These are resources that we all rely on on a constant basis. They are doubly crippled by being robbed of the riches of memory of all they have done and achieved in the past, and in facing their present or their future. Exactly the same applies to whole societies or peoples or, indeed, humanity as a whole.

Obviously a group of human individuals totally ignorant of their social past can continue, in a manner unlike a single individual, because they do in fact retain their individual memories, but still in as far as they constitute a single social body and seek to act socially they will be crippled like any individual amnesiac, both by a failure to appreciate the richness of their past and the individuals who came before them, and by the lack of knowledge with which to understand the situations of their present or future, especially when faced with other peoples for whom the past is a more immediate current motivation. I would go even further. In any individual personal relationship what is important to that relationship is not mostly what we are doing with that person right now, but rather the depth and warmth of the history that we share. It is likewise so in the social bond that binds us together, whether country or people or community. If we as a social group do not know our shared history then we lose a major part of what makes us one people, one community, rather than just individuals thrown together. Indeed, as a man who has no idea of his past loses his very identity, so a people without idea of their past will struggle to have an identity as one people at all, but merely as a group of individuals thrown together by accidents of birth, or geography, or politics.

I speak in terms of our social identity here because I believe that is where the problem of our collective social amnesia is most dangerous. Not just in the loss of social identity, and the failure to appreciate those who have gone before us, but equally in failing to equip ourselves with the lessons of the past to guide us in the present and future. This is not dangerous, perhaps, in the theoretical sciences, areas where progress would not be possible without a constant awareness of the discoveries that have gone before and where, hence, such a consciousness is maintained. It is an immense risk, however, in the more practical and general areas of the social, political and economic choices we make to direct our country, state, community and people.

Without an awareness of the history and background of these decisions, of what has been tried and tested before, of what situations have already emerged, and what has succeeded and failed, we cannot be sufficiently informed to take the decisions we must in a complex world and decide wisely. We don't just need to know ourselves either, we need to understand the nations around us. Just as ignorance of where we have come from cripples our ability to know ourselves, and act, so ignorance of the deep background and heritage of the communities around us cripples our ability to understand them, where they come from, and what they seek to do now. Just as knowledge of an individual person's past allows us to understand what has shaped and motivated them, so we need knowledge of the past of the peoples and communities around us to better judge their actions and motivations now.

It is trivial to list political issues of our time that rest on deep historical causes and influences. From the politics of racial injustice and Confederate memorials in America, to the historical motivations behind the European Union; from the complex divisions over Israel-Palestine, the tensions in Northern Ireland, the continuing violence in the Middle East, the policies of Russian Expansionism, and even the background to the Corbynite and Conservative political movements within Britain; none of these can be really understood except through the deep historical wells and sources that have fed and driven them. 

Even apart from these arguments, for me there is another important reason we should care about the poverty of historical awareness in our society. History is an immensely rich topic of study because of the sheer diversity, wealth and wonder of the things we can discover there.  L.P.Hartley once wrote, "The Past is a foreign country, they do things differently there". This is very true. I can think of no better metaphor for the wonders we can discover in History than the joys of travelling to a foreign country for the first time and experiencing new culture, food, climate, sights, people and stories; a richness and diversity we would never have imagined without venturing beyond our own land and people.

This is as true of the past as any possible place we can travel in mere space, though obviously and sadly we can never experience them as directly as in actual travel. Still, there is a richness there, of people and stories to tell, greater than any writer of fiction could conceive in one small imagination; being the true lives of billions of people just as inventive and creative as any of us. More than this though, the people of the past were people just like us: with hopes, fears, dreams and the vision of a purpose and meaning to their life. Surely then, if we are a people of love, who honour the value of human beings, we must honour them by remembering their lives and those things they gave and spent their lives for. We must remember the things, causes, and people that were so important to them, and which are also, of course, now the essential building blocks and causes of the lives we have today. For the basis of the near-infinite complexity of the lives we lead is that near-infinite beauty and complexity that came before us, with its loves and hopes, goods and evils, which now exist only as far as we take them up into our minds and make them part of our thoughts, hearts and lives.