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The Importance of studying history

Modern life offers a powerful paradox: by bouncing waves off satellites suspended in space, humankind has engineered the capability for people in every corner of the earth to communicate in real time with each other. However, despite this progress in communication, human relationships and identities are more fragmented than ever before. Last week, a student in my class articulated this anomaly best when she wrote that we study history to “find faith and hope in our understanding of the world, since people seem to be losing themselves in the midst of progress”.

Therefore the study of history — a much derided subject (“bunk” according to American motor car pioneer Henry Ford) — is vital to understand human and societal evolution, human responsibility, and global commonalities. When we plant seeds of this understanding in the minds of young people, we plant hope for the collective future of mankind.

Each individual life is a journey through time and space. So is human history. Acknowledging the fundamental unity of human experience provokes students to investigate the past and find points of continuity. Any history — ancient or modern, Indian or European — becomes powerful and relevant through this lens. As students learn to identify roots of the present in the study of the past, awareness dawns that history has shaped the present and students are stimulated to question how things have come to be.

If as educators we want our future leaders to find answers to the pressing problems of climate or cancer, water rights or war, they must know of their genesis or history. We straighten a hopelessly knotted rope by taking hold of one end and slowly working apart each tangle, one knot at a time. From what seems to be a hopeless task, an intelligent methodology begins to emerge. This is how and why we teach history — to spark a lifelong process of untangling the world as we find it, beginning with a fundamental assumption that though there may be many threads, in fact there is one rope and one continuous story of the evolution of all societies.

Convolutions and historical knots begin to form clear patterns with the application of analytical skills. This leads students to grapple with questions of individual and collective responsibility. Long chains of cause and effect emerge. For example, when did World War I begin? Did it begin with the assassination of the archduke in Sarajevo? Or with the Austrian occupation of Bosnia that led the Black Hand to assassinate him? Or with the German policy of weltpolitik that encou-raged increased militarism and sabre-rattling across Europe? Or maybe it began even further back, with von Herder, Schiller and the Romantics sowing dangerous seeds of nationalism following their belief in national souls? The well-trained student of history learns to keep following the story, patiently unravelling a complex chain of events.

Perhaps more significantly than patterns of cause and effect, the study of history teaches that responsibility accompanies every decision. Crucial decisions taken at a point of time in history can lead to consequences that may last hundreds of years. Powerful illustrations lie close to home: students learn about the seeds of religious antagonism planted by a simple diktat of Emperor Aurangzeb to raise revenue by instituting a tax on non-Muslims — a decision which is still invoked by Hindu militants.

Fortunately, history offers as many shades of light as of dark. Students also learn about the power of positive choice. In 1974 a few brave Chipko movement women in Uttara-khand’s Chamoli district prevented the felling of village trees by embracing them and started non-violent, environmental activism which swept across the developing world. Learning history teaches us that even seemingly innocuous decisions can majorly impact future generations for good or for ill.

The great writer C.S. Lewis once remarked that we read to know we are not alone. At a more profound level, the same may be said of learning about the past. The modern world, with all its glittering devices, glowing screens, and promises of progress, has also precipitated individual isolation. Loneliness and fragmentation seep through every crevice of popular culture. When students engage with history in all its richness, and learn that all human beings, across all ages, possess fundamental characteristics which are immutable, this awareness culminates in relief. It’s satisfying to learn that every question we ask has been asked a thousand times before us. What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? How do we live the good life? The study of history teaches us humility to want to examine the wisdom of different ages of the past.

In the assertion of his Meditation XVII, the 17th century poet John Donne provides perhaps the most compelling reason for the study of history: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind.”

Educators should lead young people to the understanding that they are involved in humankind; that their choices will shape the future, and that they don’t have to face the future alone. In learning history, we draw on the wisdom of the past to instill hope for the future.

(Amy Seefeldt is dean of academics at the Woodstock School, Mussoorie)

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