Saturday, February 10, 2007

Personal thoughts on history

How does someone become interested in history from a young age?

Like almost anything else exposure to the topic helps. Both my father and grandfather were avid historian lovers and passed on this pursuit to me. In that sense I was very fortunate. Some people have the ‘history bug’ in their blood, whilst others are drawn to the subject by a defining event in their childhood ie. a movie, a book, a picture of some sort. Most people however who have a fondness for history seem to appreciate the subject only later on in life, which is a great pity as the richness of our shared historical legacy, should have an appeal to all ages. I think that traditional academia has in a way served to turn people away from the subject rather than toward it.

And why do you think this is so?

Forced memorization, an emphasis on dates and indiscriminate facts is certainly the killer at the secondary school level. At university, the narrowing of disciplines and the emphasis on specialization add further to this estrangement. University serves to purge generalization. Not only in history but in many other disciplines as well.

So what is your solution?

A rebirth of amateur history, history for the people. What is needed are more history clubs, regular journals, greater access for the public of historical ideas. Academics have used language to empower themselves and so remove ideas which are understandable to many away from a common domain. In short the subject has to come down from its pedestal. A call to arms by amateurs is needed to rescue the subject from the shackles of the so-called specialists. Just as the amateur has played a vital role in astronomy so to can they re-make history into the subject it should be. The internet is helping with this renaissance but progress is slow as the middle ground which should be occupied by the generalist is small. Over time it will grow.

How are you contributing to this revolution?

I am working at several levels in this struggle. Firstly, by teaching the subject to students at the high school level in the way it should be taught ie. with an emphasis on critical thought and far range thinking, secondly by promoting the subject on my website, thirdly through the writing of my fun and informative (ok I am biased) quiz books and future histories, and finally by involving myself in historical discussion groups. It will take time but it is nevertheless a beginning. I figure that if I can impart my enthusiasm for the subject to even a handful of people I have made a great stride.

What area of history appeals to you most?

I often think of this question myself and still the answer remains inconclusive. I am drawn somehow to the dark ages that period between the Fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476AD and the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The concept of the Dark Ages is very much a misnomer and certainly it a non-European context was indeed a period of Enlightenment (especially in the Islamic world). However there are many area of world history that are fascinating: the Napoleonic Period, The rise of idealism in Europe in the 19th century, Ancient Greece, Africa in the post World War II period etc. to name a few. Each has their own drawing power and entices me with their own specific charm. I guess I plain and simple enjoy the study of history. Its like a puzzle which we are constantly working to unravel.

When do you think History began?

With the big bang. I don’t believe in this concept of pre-history. Its just a crutch to narrow the field of study. I support a continuity of events that precedes humanity but is directly responsible as well for defining our species’ development over time. Its for this reason that I see so much of a merger between history and the sciences despite the attitude of many who would treat these disciplines as independent. Having established this broad time spectrum I do however believe that it is necessary to sub-divide time into eras, but these are only artificial and serve really to make the historians job much easier.

Agriculture played a very important role in the development of civilization. This concept has served as a virtual pillar of western thought which often seems history as beginning with the establishment of agricultural civilizations in Mesopotamia, the Indus River, China and the Nile. What do you think about this assumption?

I agree that it is commonplace but I don’t like it. For one it sets the tone that all non-agricultural based societies are barbaric. This negates the importance of several well organized hunter-gatherer communities that sprung up all over the globe. Many of these societies had laws and cultures which were just as sophisticated as these so-called permanent agricultural societies but by this narrow definition have been relegated to the trash heap of historical analysis. Civilization has many forms and is more ubiquitous than we give it credit for. I often wonder if the term itself is more a hindrance than anything else. Sort of a hangover from the Enlightenment when many were too over zealous in expressing them perceived superiority over others.

But doesn’t your more inclusive definition open itself up to a cultural relativism?

No, because advances and step backwards in the march of humanity can take place in any type of society. The Nazis were scientifically advanced but took several steps backwards in an absolute moralistic scale because of their actions. There are still absolute guidelines which the historian can define to ascertain the value or progress of a so-called civilization. Its the duty of the historian to consult with the philosopher to determine what these guidelines should be. This is the challenge that makes historical analysis so challenging.

Lets look at Mesopotamia and its to in driving Western History. Why do you think Mesopotamia played such a crucial role?

The Mesopotamian civilization sprung up in the fertile area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Such city states as Ur and Erich were very advanced were the product of a stable environment. As a result of their geography the Mesopotamians could afford to live off the land and did not as so many other hunter gatherer societies have to move to another locale to find food. With a consistency of base, settlements became more entrenched and people invested more in the land. They thus in a sense had more to lose and consequently gravitated toward a system that would ensure stability. Once the stability had been created, a vehicle was now in place to drive the model to he surrounding areas. This of course is easier said that done, and the threat of external invaders were always present, but the society survived as it was more consistent in its framework than the other tribes around it. The same was true of Egypt, the Indus Civilization and the Chinese civilization that developed along the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers.
Western Civilization is a composite of many inputs. In a sense it is not uniform, that is why its history is so plagued with violence. However after a while the societal structure gravitates to a stable mode: in Europe’s case, it is the unity of the EU.

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