Can history teach?

Published : Aug 29, 2008 00:00 IST

This book sees history as a critical resource for the active citizen in a representative democracy.

History does bear on the present, which is why diplomats of class are well versed in history. The foremost American historian of diplomacy, Professor Ernest R. Mays Lessons of The Past analyses the use and abuse of history in American foreign policy. Catchwords recalling historic events are used recklessly to buttress a political stand: Munich to ridicule conciliation and Pearl Harbour to shout down any ac cord that is based on trust. The distinguished Dutch historian Pieter Geyls The Terry Lectures for 1954 at Yale University, published under the arresting title Use and Abuse of History, are a powerful critique of such abuse.

Paul Valerys remarks in History & Politics are so true that one is tempted to suggest that the Islamic precepts on alcohol may well be applied to history permissible as medicine, but not for indulgence as pleasure. He wrote: History is the most dangerous product evolved from the Chemistry of the intellect. Its properties are well-known. It causes dreams, it intoxicates whole people, gives them false memoriesleads them into delusions, either of grandeur or persecution, and makes nations bitter, arrogant, insufferable and vain.

Nor must one forget the stranglehold of the state in the writing of history of sensitive phases in the recent past and the vicious role of the court historian. South Asia is yet to produce anyone of the moral stature of the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe.

John Tosh is Professor at Roehampton University, United Kingdom, and author of the introductory text The Pursuit of History. The book under review has been written for a laudable purpose. Judging by the tenor of political debate and the coverage of the media, most people in Britain think that in a fast-moving world history has little or nothing to offer to a national public discourse. Time and again, complex policy issues are placed before the public without adequate explanation of how they have come to assume their present shape, and without any hint of the possibilities that are disclosed by the record of the past. Historians who should be doing most to correct this view hold back from an overzealous concern to uphold their scholarly integrity. Yet this is a critical dimension of citizenship. To know that the past can illuminate the contours of the present is to be better equipped to make intelligent decisions about difficult public issues. Within Whitehall there is some acknowledgement of that proposition, and its practical consequences have been analysed in a number of studies of the influence of history and historians on policymaking at the highest level.

The book does not put forward a comprehensive rationale for the study of history. Its concern is a practical one to make the case that history is a critical resource for the active citizen in a representative democracy. The author notes that TV and radio play an important role in the teaching of history. Clement Attlee once described the historian A.J.P. Taylor as a TV star.

History is a liberator. That is precisely why establishments dread it and nationalists pervert it. Only a Tony Blair can assert, as he did in 2003 to the United States Congress, that there has never been a time when, except in the most general sense, a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day.

Prof. Tosh refers to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and writes: Understanding this conflict depends on a knowledge of the perspectives which mould the actions of both parties, and those perspectives are formed by their different experiences of the past. Greg Philo and his colleagues at the Glasgow Media Group find that not only is the conflict habitually reported from an Israeli angle, but the historical antecedents of the Palestinian resistance are consistently ignored in news bulletins. Thus, out of a large sample of British students interviewed in 2001, only 4 per cent were found to know about Israels forced removal of Palestinians in 1948. Yet this is the critical base line of the conflict. Philo documents a consistent bias in favour of Israel on the part of news reporters. But he is well aware that public ignorance about the nature of the conflict is also sustained by the pressure on TV journalists to report action rather than offer explanation. This is true of all conflicts. History is a great teacher.

The British Foreign Office asked the historian Charles Webster to write an account of the Congress of Vienna, 1815, as a guide to the officials at the Congress of Versailles in 1919. The role of the Historical Division of Indias Ministry of External Affairs in the boundary dispute with China after 1959 was not an inspiring one.

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