Wednesday, 20 January 2010

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

On the level of our whole society, neither the past nor the future are paid nearly as much attention as they should. 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. These two issues are directly related: How can we predict the future without using the lessons of our past?

I will explain what I mean. First, our lack of interest in the Past.

This should be the least contentious of the two claims. Perhaps never before have even relatively educated sections of our society been so ignorant about our History, whether as Britain, or the whole World. Pick almost anyone at random, unless they themselves are a historian, and their ignorance of history is often remarkable. I doubt many people would even disagree this is the case.  I believe this sad fact is a simple consequence of a few factors. Firstly, the decline of the ideal of the 'Renaissance Man', that an educated person should be generally well informed and skilled to call themselves educated. Education has become increasingly and dramatically specialised, to the great benefit of economic and technical pursuits, but to the cost of a general 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.

Lastly, the blame falls on 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 one 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 of 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. 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, have the resources of knowledge and experience to apply to the situations they meet now, or will meet in the future; resources that 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 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 relationship with another person 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 share as two people.  So, it is in the social bond, which binds us together, whether country or people or community. If we as a social group do not know our shared history then we have lost a major part of what makes us a people, a 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 a 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 it here that the problem of our collective social amnesia is most dangerous. Not just in the loss of social identity described above, 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 immensely dangerous, however, in the more practical and general areas 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, and the background of the communities we face, we cannot be sufficiently informed to take the decisions we must in a complex world and decide wisely. We cannot just know ourselves either, but must 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 those communities around us cripples our ability to understand them, where they come from and what they seek to 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.

It is trivial to list of 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 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 there than the wonder of travelling to a foreign country for the first time and experiencing the joys of a new culture, architecture, climate, places, sights, people, food, stories, of a richness and diversity we would never have imagined without venturing beyond our own country and people.

This is even more true of the past than any possible place of travel in mere space, though sadly we can never experience them quite so 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 just as inventive people. 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 can not but honour, by remembering, their lives and those things they gave and spent their lives for, 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 exists only in as much as we take them up into our minds and make them part of our thoughts, hearts and lives.


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