Ebrahim Essa’s remarks about school history textbooks and how they differ from earlier times (The Mercury, September 8) brings to the fore the timeless question – what is history?
Many books have been written discussing that question, none of which has produced a single universal definition. What is clear, however, is that it is fundamentally a body of ascertained facts which may indicate causes and effects in considering the past. Use of the word “may” serves to caution that whatever one determines as the causes and effects of an event is unlikely to be unanimously accepted by others who examine the same event because, unlike science, the past cannot be studied empirically.
History is really an endless argument about the past and therefore it is not static but is subject to change in terms of the revision of findings, the discovery of new facts or subsequent developments which may alter the perspective from which a particular aspect of the past was previously viewed. It is also subject to ideological, political, national, cultural and religious outlooks. The past, of course, cannot be changed, but what does change is how it is viewed, interrogated and interpreted.
The first difficulty in setting a syllabus for history teaching is the vast scope of the subject because there is a history of everything and anything. The second challenge that arises is the need to provide context to whatever periods or themes have been selected. The third hurdle is to appreciate that valid interpretation is not possible until a command of the basic facts is achieved.
Omission and commission are two aspects that shape historical accounts. The first concerns what is left out. Was it because it deviated from the narrative being advanced or was it simply seen as irrelevant? Factual content that is included or excluded from an account may be to accord with a particular political or ideological approach.
What makes history enlightening, interesting and also, it must be said, confusing, is the variety of interpretations. A classic case example is: What caused World War 1? Depending on the nationality of the historian writing his account, one finds a blame game between the major protagonists – British, French, German, Russian. And if you read a Russian communist’s account, it will argue that the war was caused by capitalist greed.
Understanding history, therefore, is quite a challenge. But the benefit of studying it is that it serves to generate skill in managing information. In a world awash with information, fake and contrived, biased and sensationalised, the ability to cut through verbiage, to distinguish relevant from irrelevant and to produce relative objectivity is a great asset. A study of history also enhances language skills because, unlike the Sciences which have specific terminologies, language is the vehicle on which history depends for expression.