History is probably the most underrated subject taught in school. In a country like India (and increasingly worldwide), ground realities have ensured that there is a high probability that unless you have a degree in a science related field, you will not have any measure of financial security.
The focus during schooling naturally shifts towards math and science and a subject like history tends to take the back seat. A soft field for those who can’t cut it in the world of technology. Future liberal arts majors who will eventually make a living at Starbucks, as the stereotype goes. But I will always count History among my favourite subjects.
This is not because I hate math and science or I was bad at them. It is because History strikes a chord within me and makes me think about life in a way even astronomy never can. Because it tells us the story of humanity. If we could compress all of history to a year with midnight on January 1st being the Big Bang, all of human history would be contained in the last few seconds of December 31st. Yet, it is a significant that we learn from it because our ability to survive and prosper depends on avoiding the mistakes we have made in the past.
When we learn history in school, the syllabus tends to focus on our nation’s history. And in India, politics often determines the content of our textbooks. Critical inquiry is often discouraged, especially when there is a chance that the veneer of respectability and even divinity that we coat our nation’s leaders with is peeled away to reveal the monsters underneath.
I remember one entire school year we read about the Marathi King Shivaji. We learnt about how heroic he was, how just, how tolerant, how brave he was. We learnt what a master tactician he was and were reminded time and again about the aura of perfection that surrounded him. However, not once was there any criticism leveled against him. In Maharashtra, questioning Shivaji is taboo. One cannot something negative about him and go unpunished. Entire elections are decided on the basis of which political outfit invokes his name more often. And we treat his enemies, the Mughals and later the British like our own enemies.
Indian students learn exhaustively about the Indian freedom struggle, Americans, presumably about the American Revolution and the French learn lessons about the storming of Bastille and the execution of Louie XVI. But in this compartmentalization of history, while we glorify our heroes, we pay lip service to others. But in reality, each historical event profoundly influences others.
The French Revolution, for instance, is perhaps the single most important historical event of the 19th century. Republics, growth of liberal democracies and the rise of secularism in the modern age has it’s roots in it. Many ideas that shaped the Indian Republic were borrowed from the French Revolution and The American War of Independence.
The American Constitution is surely the most important document from the 18th century and shaped the constitutions of several other nations well into the 20th century. The American Civil Rights movement was extraordinarily important and in fact drew it’s inspirations from the civil disobedience movements pioneered by Mahatma Gandhi. Yet, only lip service is paid to these events.
We forget that nations are human constructs. Yesterday’s nations can dissolve and merge because what is a nation other than an arbitrary and ever changing division of land? We mustn’t let those who need these divisions to retain control make us forget that not too long ago, we were all merely tribes separated by distance, distances that are now just a minor inconvenience. And we share a common origin.
Forgetting our lessons causes us to make the same mistakes made in the past. Great civilizations fall because of indulgent populations that grow complacent and forget the ideals their nations were founded on. Greece, Persia, Mesopotamia and Rome all fell because of the rot that had set in and even America, a modern empire, is on the brink because in many ways, its citizens have repeated the errors made by empires past.
Giving History it’s due and making it accessible and important is the key to progressing as a species and moving beyond our petty squabbles. Many years ago, my father delighted me with stories of the great empires that sprang up, prospered and collapsed over the ages. It’s time everyone took a second look at their tales and listened closely to the lessons they teach.