That great polymath British historian, Simon Schama, recently pleaded in the Guardian (11/9/2010) not to cut back the public financing of history instruction for teenagers. He noted how the putative founder of history as a scholarly discipline in our Western tradition, Herodotus, observed that etymologically, the word history comes from the word for inquiry.
The discipline is to investigate with ever more pertinent questions. So by definition that intellectual activity is a bone of contention: !. . .the arguments it generates resist national self-congratulation. So that inquiry is not the uncritical genealogy of the wonderfulness of Us, but it is, indispensably, an understanding of the identity of us.
The endurance of British History’s rich and rowdy discord is, in fact, the antidote to civic complacency, the condition of the irreverent freedom that’s our special boast. (Try the American version and you will know what I mean about our brand of salutary disrespect.) Unless they (our young students) can be won to history, their imaginations will be held hostage to the eternal NOW: the flickering instant that’s gone as soon as it is arrived. The seeding of twelve year old amnesia is the undoing of citizenship.
A fortiori in a culture like ours, long defiled by Henry Ford’s empty bromide, “History is bunk!”, we more than any modern culture need solid historical perspective. But as we’ve seen in the pastlessness of the current Tea Party frenzy, once you have lost (or more likely have never achieved) a disciplined familiarity with our complex and divergent pasts, we spout nonsense at each other—the shallower the awareness, the more inflexible the debater.
In a simpler society, knowing the seasons and the local weather was history enough to herd the cattle and timely plant the edibles. But globalization is an astonishing daily interaction of hundreds of cultures with diverse traditions and aspirations. And look how hard it is to get consensus on all the irrevocable changes transforming our globe in uncounted, often unanalyzed ways. First we tried with the League of Nations. Now the varied activities of the UN are deployed, often with little or no effects.
Schama, ever the realist, wonders if we can undo the seeding of collective amnesia which undoes citizenship. He believes if they read Harry Potter et al, they can engage in debate over the (his)stories of our diverse developments. But in societies in which more people remember batting averages than amendments to their constitutions, it will not be easy.
A play pen culture can hardly govern itself. And each society and the parts thereof need a sharpened view of their antecedents. And that’s just the beginning: the more diverse the interaction of discrete cultures, the more each must know about the others. Dreamers think that Global English is uniting the universe’s discrete parts. Hardly. Small vocabularies and narrow minds obfuscate as much as they clarify. That is why the humanities are so crucial in the diverse and contradictory internationalizations going on simultaneously.
I foresee the creation of Peace Squads in which college students swap universities polylinguistically. A group from Shanghai swapping with a group from Boston, etc. When I was the first director of the American Studies Institute at the East West Center in Hawaii in 1960-61, I had a weekly interview series over KAIM-FM. I’ll never forget my interview with the editor of the Communist paper in Kerala, India.
Somehow we started talking about Thomas Jefferson, about which I knew quite a bit! But not his stealing a new variety of rice from Italy (punishable by death) in a hollow walking cane. How come, he knew this detail from my history and I didn’t, I asked myself. It soon became clear as I mulled this paradox on the way back from driving him to the airport.
Eighteenth century Virginia was then what we now call a Third World Country. Jefferson was always looking for ways to help his farmers. Kerala was now a Third World part of India, and the editor noticed things about our history that we had forgotten or never noticed. We must all learn to become more ecumenical with our new neighbors problems. Creating a functioning global community will not be easy. It must begin with learning our own history more and more completely. And theirs as well.