Recently, I read an article in this website (www.scholarmedia.africa) titled “Does the History We Learn in School add up?” by Mwalimu Gichaba Nyantino.
He brought up some interesting points, and it made me think about history in a broader sense.
It also reminded me of Karl Popper.
Popper, an Austrian Philosopher wrote “The Open Society & Its Enemies” while teaching in New Zealand during the WWII.
Although the book is an uncompromising defense of liberal democracy, it starts by discussing history and its effect on political thinking.
In this discussion Popper brings up the concept of Historicism.
In short, Historicism describes how prediction of future social and political developments are based on “deep” understanding of “great” actors on the stage of history.
It shows how people often uses history to support their theories and predictions about future political events and their success and failure.
Popper further shows how this historical approach to social science has given poor results and how useless the past often is as an indicator for the future.
The fact is history does not care about the future. We, on the other hand, are obsessed about the future and at the same time we are apprehensive of the past.
It might seem strange to feel apprehensive about something, where the outcome is known, something passed.
However, we rarely have clear view of the past and often we feel it is like watching the world through a sheet of falling water, it is all blurry.
Problems understanding history
We run into several problems when we study history.
First, uncertainty. While we can generally be sure about what did happen around us a few minutes ago, memory becomes elusive when we think about earlier events, and once we start looking at actions away from ourselves, we must rely on observation of others.
The further back we go, the harder it is to find reliable sources to get an accurate picture of the event in question.
Second, is perception. It is a well known problem to the police; how unreliable eyewitnesses are in crime investigation.
Several witnesses, to the same event, may have different account of it, depending on their perception, point of view and preset ideas.
Third, our own biases and prejudice, caused by our own background.
How we understand history, is greatly influenced by our own background. How did we learn about history, where did we grow up, what is our religion, nationality, political affiliation?
All these factors come into play when we read about historical events.
The fourth factor is vocabulary. This point may not be that obvious, but language changes over time, words take on new meaning or the thing itself described by a word may change.
An example of a word that has taken on a new meaning is the word “gay”. It used to describe someone or something lighthearted and carefree, while now it is usually used to explain sexual orientation of men.
On the other hand, “Arms” and “Republican” party are two words where the thing itself described by a word has changed.
“ARMS”: The second amendment to the US Constitution has been used in defense of the right of US citizen to bear arms. There are several problems with this argument, but the word “ARMS” is certainly a problem.
The second amendment was passed in 1789 and ratified in 1791 as part of, what is now know as, “The Bill of Rights”.
What the word “ARMS” meant in 1789 and what it means in 2021 are two different things.
Most “ARMS” used today did not exist in 1789 and most “ARMS” used in 1789 are not in use today.
Look at “Republican”: The Republican Party was the party of Lincoln, and today’s republicans relish in referring to their party in that manner.
However, looking carefully at the political agenda of Lincoln, it has little to do with the political agenda of the Republican Party today.
The agenda of Lincoln is much more in line with modern Democrats than Republicans.
Despite of these problems we should be able to agree to the fact that history brought us here, that the present is the result of past event.
When it comes to teaching history, we must be careful to avoid the problems mentioned above, or better, point them out to our students, for them to understand these pitfalls of history, so they can be aware of them and avoid falling in.
In his article, Mr. Gichaba refers to “lies” in regard to the African slave trade and “the fallacious claim that some random European traveler was the first man to discover, or worse still see, this or that geographical phenomena”.
He has problems with the “crazy assertion that Arabs/Europeans came to Africa for slaves”, stating that “… there were no slaves in Africa sitting pretty waiting to be taken to whatever destination”, and that “Africans engaged in very methodical living with each age group knowing their particular tasks. Some were engaged as farmers, pastoralists, ironworkers, and masters of their areas of specializations.”
I understand Mr. Gichaba sentiments.
Slavery is an ugly thing, unfortunately as old as humanity and has not been eradicated even in the 2021.
Slavery has changed over the ages and how it has been conducted has changed from climate to climate, from age to age.
Humans have justified slavery over and over again.
Plato justified slavery and many Greece and earlier philosophers justified slavery as an unavoidable part of warfare.
Several verses in The Bible have been used to justify slavery, including Gen. 9:18-27, 21:9-10, Exodus 20:10,17, Eph. 6:5-8, Philem. 12, and more.
While Mr. Gichaba statements are partially true (I say partially, because although it is true, it is not the whole truth and nothing but the truth), there is more to it than that.
Beside farming, pastoral work, ironwork and other specializations and trades, Africans were also engaged in tribal wars, just as Europeans were engaged in tribal wars.
They fought and killed each other, took each other’s land, women, and homes.
However disagreeable the thought is that one human being can take possession of another and treat her like his property, the fact remains it did exist and still does exist in many forms today.
Europeans went to Africa to purchase slaves.
They hunted people, imprisoned them, and kidnapped them away from their homeland and family.
They also purchased slaves. That is, some Africans sold other Africans into slavery.
It is pretentious to state that Columbus found America.
Beside the fact, although it was inhabited by millions of people, it was never, so to speak, lost.
However, from the point of view of Europe (and the rest of the world, for that matter), America did not exist.
Some Icelandic Vikings had been there about five hundred years earlier (a documented fact), but they did not kill enough people to become famous for it, and if they had, they would undoubtedly have claimed the discovery for themselves.
How we frame the “discovery of America”, depends on our point of view.
It cannot be said it is wrong that Columbus discovered America when she was in fact searching for the shortest route to India and happened upon land unknown to Europeans.
At the same time, it is not wrong to talk about the European invasion of America from the point of view of American Indians.
Because of the four problems mentioned earlier, it is hard to teach history on purely factual basis.
I believe, teaching history is best done by engaging in conversation, even heated discussions, about historical events, their causes, and consequences.
Why should we bother about history at all? Why should we study about buried cities, dead generals, and archaic ways?
We should, because as I stated earlier, the present is the accumulation of the past.
We can learn from the past how to avoid mistakes, what worked and what did not work, and how we have arrived to where we are.
Still, as Karl Popper said, history is a poor indicator of the future.
The future does not exist. Asking someone how they will feel next year, is the same as asking them how they felt before they were born.
The future is made up of continuous present. We are in the present, going into the future.
How we shape the future is entirely up to us, not our ancestors or the past.
We cannot put history in a bottle and just feed it to next generations.
We are constantly learning new things about the past; we are developing new understanding about the present and how the past relates to it.
Great examples of how we should read history, are books like “A People’s History of The United States”, by Howard Zinn, “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, by Jared Diamond, “The Crusades through Arab Eyes” by Amin Malouf, and others that provoke us to think about past events in a less bottled-up kind of a way than we have from our typical school book curriculum.
That is the kind of material a history professor should read and then use to provoke discussions among his students about whatever they are reading in their text books.
Mr. Thorgeirsson, a Columnist with The scholar Media Africa based in Puerto Rico-USA, is a coach in Personal Finance. He has MBA in Finance and Marketing from Inter Americana University, Puerto Rico. His contact: email@example.com