Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Essential to the Present: Having One Eye on the Past . . .

The Past and the Future are strangely out of fashion in our present times.  This is in the sense of being things that are not paid, on the level of our whole society, nearly as much attention as they should. We neither pay sufficient attention to what has actually occurred in our past, nor to considering what may occur in our future. On a certain level, the reason for this obvious. We tend to have at least enough trouble just dealing with the present, but regardless of this it is a deeply unsatisfactory and, indeed, dangerous set of circumstances. Furthermore, these two issues are directly related. How can we predict the future without using the lessons of our past, whether in the more general and difficult sense, or the more trivial one of the knowledge we have stored up over our history?

I will explain what I mean. First in reference to our Lack of interest in the Past.

Our lack of interest in our past, as a society, should be the least contentious of these two claims. Perhaps never before have even the more educated sections of our society been so ignorant about the Past, whether that of our nation, or of humanity more generally. Pick almost anyone at random, unless they themselves are a historian, and their ignorance of history is too frequently stunning, and I doubt that more than a few people would disagree that this is the case.  I believe this sad fact to be a simple consequence of a few factors. Firstly, the decline of the ideal of the renaissance man, that an educated man should maintain a broad range of academic interests in order to call himself educated. Secondly, the commercialisation of education, in the sense that education is seen as something we undertake for purely practical benefit, often in explicitly economic terms, rather for any enobling effects in of itself. And lastly I place the blame on the manner in which history is taught in the modern day, for the little time it is obligatory, by intense concentration on a few isolated segments or periods of our national or human history, without any overview of how the whole, rolling, continuous human story fits together. For all its possible benefits this method has one crippling deficiency. I do not know how to quite explain it except by analogy. Our method of teaching history is akin to teaching pupils about America solely by intensely drilling into them the local social, economic and political facts-on-the-ground of North Dakota, South Carolina and Utah, but nothing about the country as a whole, whether of its government, or its shape, where it came from, what it is constituted of, or what stands for. I can only hope this example represents the bizarre nature of this method, a thousand more examples could be easily generated. Even among A-Level of University level students of history, the general level of 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 outside their lessons or lectures.

I imagine few people would disagree that the vast majority of our population knows a pitifully small amount of history: its past. Far more people, however, may be question why this ignorance of the Past is such a disaster though, and this would seem the very default position of the historically ignorant masses. To answer this, I first appeal to another analogy. As a society and as individuals 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, for the obvious reasons that such a person can neither truly know or appreciate who they are, or have the resources of knowledge and experience to apply to the situations they are meeting now, or will meet in the future.  Resources, which we all rely on on a constant basis. They are doubly crippled in being robbed of the riches of memory of all the things that they have done and achieved in their past life and in having none of the resources of experience with which to understand and face those things they meet in the present and will meet in the 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 as crippled as any individual amnesiac, both by a sad failure to appreciate the richness of their past and all the individuals who came before them and by the lack of any knowledge or understanding with which to understand the situations of their present or future.   I would go even further than this. Just as with any individual relationship we may have with another person, where what is important to that relationship is not even mostly what we are doing with them right now, but rather the depth and warmth of the history that we as two people share.  So, in the social bond, which binds us in whatever social groups we may belong, whether country or people or community, if we as a social group do not know our shared history then we have lost the most part of what makes us a people, a community, whether big or small, rather than just a group of individuals thrown together. Indeed, as a man who has no idea of his past, loses his very identity, so a people without idea of the past that they share, cannot even have an identity as a people, but merely as a group of individuals thrown together by whatever accidents of birth, or geography, or politics.

I speak in terms of our social identity here, because I believe that it is in what is commonly thought of as the social sphere, or at least the sphere commonly studied by the social sciences, that the problem of our collective social amnesia is most dangerous. Not just in the sense of the loss of social identity described above, and the failure to appreciate those who have gone before us, but perhaps more importantly in the sense of 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 immensely dangerous, however, in the more practical and general areas of the decision of the social, political and economic choices with which we 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, of the background of the peoples and other communities we face, we just cannot take the decisions that we must take in a complex world sufficiently informed to consistently decide wisely. Nothing less than which is demanded by the trials we face. A knowledge of our own past is, also, not the only thing that is essential. Just as ignorance of where we have come from cripples our ability to know ourself, and act, so ignorance of those nations and communities around us cripples our ability to understand them, their background, their motivation, where they come from and what they seek to do. Again, just as we seek knowledge about a person's past to more fully understand them so we must seek knowledge about the peoples and communities we face to understand them. I would hope the difficulties of the recent Iraq War should be enough to convince anyone of the truth of this assertion at least.

Even apart from these arguments thought there is for me another very important reason for being concerned about the poverty of historical awareness and consciousness among our society. History is an immensely rich topic of study because of the sheer diversity, wealth and wonder of the things we can discover therein.  L.P.Hartley once wrote, "The Past is a foreign country, they do things differently there".  This is very true and I can think of no better metaphor for the wonders open to our discovery from our past than that of the wonder of travelling to a foreign country and experiencing the joys of a new culture, architecture, climate, the places, the sights, the beauty, the different people, the food, the stories, of a richness and diversity we could never even have imagined if we had never ventured beyond our own country and people. This is true of the past but to a greater degree and extent than that of any possible place of travel in mere space. There is a richness there, of people and of stories to tell, greater than that of any writer of fiction could possibly ever hope to pull from their one small imagination; being the true lives of billions of just as inventive people. What is more than this though, is the fact that the people of the past were once 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 can not but honour, by remembering them, their lives and those things that they gave and spent their lives for, that were so important to them, and which are, furthermore, the essential building blocks and causes of the lives we have and we live today. For in truth the sole basis of the near-infinite complexity of the lives we lead and dwell beside is that same near-infinite beauty and complexity that came before us, with its loves and hopes, good and evils, and which now exists only in the records we hold and more truly only in as much as we take them up into our minds and make them part of our minds and lives.


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