In The Armchair

What’s the Use of History?

Posted in Armchair Ruminations by Armchair Guy on June 15, 2009

Nehru-Gandhi

This was a common question we asked ourselves during high school, when history seemed to have no uses and entailed an interminable sequence of facts that had to memorized.  (History’s cause wasn’t helped by the boring way in which it was taught.)

Once you grow up, it’s kind of obvious that history is important.  It gives you a perspective on current events, helps assess the effects of policies and actions, and observing successful people builds character and keeps the nation honest.  I just wonder why no one told us this in high school!

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2 Responses

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  1. Kaffir said, on July 27, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    It cuts both ways though. Till I wasn’t aware of the recent history of “secularism” in India and the past histories of invasion and their significance, I had a more “let’s all get along” attitude. Not so anymore. With that knowledge of history has come a certain entrenchment and “less willingness to compromise” attitude.

    I’d add that history by itself is immaterial, unless there’s an identity that goes with it and interprets it. What’s *my* locus standi(to borrow a law term) in how I view the affairs of the past, and how far in the past do I go? Am I viewing it as an Indian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a leftist, a rightist, a centrist? Or, is there a locus standi that transcends all those identities when reading history, and there’s an objective place to view and interpret those events? Would a Brahmin in Tamil Nadu view certain events the same way as a Brahmin from Maharashtra or a Dalit from UP, when we talk of certain socio-religious issues?
    Or maybe reading history shapes identities?

  2. Armchair Guy said, on July 27, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    Kaffir:

    You’re right about history, of course; it’s heavily interpreted. I suppose it is theoretically possible to write an absolutely unbiased history, but it’s hard or impossible for anyone to do in practice. A historian can bias things by choice of facts, order of presentation, choice of descriptive words and so on — even assuming (s)he’s trying to be fair, which is not usually the case.

    One well known big challenge for India (and everyone from British apologists to Ram Guha has struggled to imagine how this could be done) is to present a unified history acceptable to all Indians. I don’t know whether this is possible or even desirable. Certainly there are some who don’t think so: various Dalit writers (Kancha Iliah for example) have used (partly) imaginary history to harden Dalits against other Hindus and Dalits nowadays do identify themselves with this kind of history.

    In that sense, it’s circular Dalit identity is informed by these histories — which are themselves informed by how Dalits want to identify themselves.


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