Why History?

Why History?

This is an age of computers, sophisticated machinery, technologies, and a vigorous IT industry. Intellectuals define this as ‘post-industrial era’, meaning that the revolutionary changes brought about by the industrial revolution have already gone by. However, two questions continue to engage the post-modern man: ‘What is history?’ And ‘Why read history?’
The entire discipline of history has been reduced to just clearing bureaucratic exams. This is one way of manipulating the true meaning of history. The general opinion regarding history is that it is the study of the past, but academically speaking, ‘History is an understanding of the past’, as defined by the stalwart Indian historian Romila Thapar.
The English word ‘history’ is derived from the Greek word ‘istoria’, meaning inquiry, research, exploration or information. If we define history in a broad sense, it is a systematic account of the origin and development of humankind, a record of the unique events and movements in its life. Keith Hopkinsall describes the need for historians to repeatedly rewrite history because we look to the past to understand ourselves in the present. EH Carr, one of the most celebrated history theorists, defines history as the ‘continual process of interaction; a dialogue between the historian in the present and the facts of the past’. Carr has eloquently defined in his magnum opus, ‘What is History’, a criterion for selecting historical fact. History according to him contains a corpus of ascertained facts and these are available to the historian in documents. So, to him, history is not a mundane factual exercise but a constructive and scientific knowledge of the past.
History is the study of cultures, civilisations, knowledge systems, religious beliefs, social formations, nations, nationalisms, social revolutions, empires and more importantly, study of ideas. Man has always had interaction with his fellowmen form times immemorial, which resulted in the construction of certain cultural patterns. Cultures met through different historical processes and attained the highest status of ‘civilisation’.
By critically studying the civilisations across the globe we try to understand the lives of people, how social environment has shaped their stages of development, and people’s language, literature, political and economic life, etc. History studies the origin of things. It helps us to provide identity and this is unquestionably one of the reasons all modern nations encourage its teaching in some form. When Italy was ruled by a Fascist government led by Mussolini, who unleashed a reign of terror, it was Antonio Gramsci, a towering 20th century intellectual, who criticised Mussolini and his brutal policies through literature. Gramsci wrote his wonderful ‘Prison Notebooks’ in prison. He was the greatest proponent of historicism. As a neo-Marxist he believed that ideas cannot be understood without understanding the social and historical environment in which they progress. He questioned the totalitarian form of government by quoting lessons from the French Revolution.
Every civilisation was fond of reading and writing history because it was through this that they could get future generations acquainted with themselves. Chinese civilisation was very rich in the production of historical knowledge. They established separate departments for overseeing the writing of history. Through history it would be fascinating to know how China, which is nowadays an IT hub, looked like back then? Who controlled the systems of political functioning? How did China evolve to what is today? These are all questions central to historical debate. When we study history reasonably well, and so acquire some usable habits of mind, as well as some basic data about the forces that affect our own lives, we emerge with relevant skills, and an enhanced capacity for informed citizenship, critical thinking and awareness.
Critical thinking is an important concept in history if applied properly. When did the Islamic civilisation emerge? How did it achieve success in acquiring an extensive proficiency in sciences, arts, literature, architecture, etc? Where did it fail? Which factors led to its intellectual decline that this civilisation is currently facing? These are all questions that only ‘History’ can answer. It is because this discipline has the temerity to respond to the question of ‘Why’? And this ‘Why’ generates the most essential question of, ‘Why History’?

The writer is a research scholar at Department of History, MANUU Hyderabad. [email protected]

 

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