A statement I have to constantly hear when I tell people I read History in college is – How do you manage to remember so many dates? Not that I am judging anyone, but I sometimes wonder why History is such a stereotyped subject. Agreed, it may have been the subject most of us slept through in school (I mostly attribute this to bad teaching), but I fail to understand why History is in general is considered so boring.
I mean we all book tickets to visit a historical place. We get excited on seeing a plaque commemorating a historical figure. We become so happy when we learn about our heritage. So, how can history be boring?
I have faced days when I have slept in classes, or slept in the library because the book I was reading was extremely boring. But does that make everything about History boring? It’s very unfortunate that one bad experience bitters us for life. For what I am about to tell you is a realization most people don’t understand that they have had over the course of their short span of life.
There are days in our life when we remember the past. And we should, because the past constructs our behaviour in the present. We all try to learn from our mistakes, and try to reform ourselves to be a ‘better’ person. Every new year is a resolution – to not commit the mistakes we did last year. Every year is a revelation – of our faults, mistakes and our good qualities. Then, if we refer to the past so much, how does studying it make it so boring?
History, and humanities in general are not subjects generally preferred by students (and parents) for getting people jobs. I mean, how will reading about Hitler get me a job at Goldman Sachs? He was an evil man, who did evil things, everyone knows that, what’s there to study?
I recently met a woman during a train journey who was highly fascinated to know how I memorise the huge number of Russian and Arabic (she actually said Arabic- my only thought was, is she serious?) names I study. The general stereotype is – remember names and remember dates. Memorise them, write them in the exam and move on. My subject sounds like a casual date whom I should simply kiss and move on, because a relationship won’t really work out between us in the first place.
Am I bitter? No. I am just sure that what most people believe, is what I do too – but from a different perspective. I do find what I do boring in bits and pieces – but that’s because that period of history doesn’t interest me. I do have to remember loads of names, but that’s only for a General Knowledge quiz, not for my University exam.
Learning a humanities subject doesn’t make you an esoteric personality who just walks around in baggy jeans smoking a cigarette, talking big but not doing anything. It makes you understand that the world around you is still stuck in the back of the past, while you have an opportunity to move on.
If you ever do book tickets to go to see the Taj Mahal in India or the Buckingham Palace in London, or the Grand Canyon in USA, you know that it’s a beautiful creation of mankind and it’s a ‘tourist attraction’. But have you ever given a thought that there would have been no tourist attraction had the people back then behaved like us today? Had Lincoln said, I don’t care about history, let slavery be, would it ever had been abolished? Had Mahatma Gandhi not begun the non- violence movement and treated it as an ideology that one should only read in books, then would India have ever achieved independence, making Gandhi the most revered leader in the modern age?
We all want to create history. That’s how we are connected to history. We all come to live this short life to create History. We may not become a Gandhi, a Marilyn Monroe or a Malala (yes, I believe she has an important place in history, because she is a living example of a western media created icon), but we all can make a change to life in general by not being so complacent about it.
There is a need to look beyond what we think. We all believe what the ‘general people’ say, but I believe experiencing something on your own is far more important that just hearing about it. The United States and United Kingdom have succeeded in creating respect for the Humanities, connecting people in every way possible to the history of their country. But in Asia, with a population striving for development and industrialization, humanities education is just seen as a waste of resources and time as it is a relentless pursuit for writing and reading something completely useless for securing a job or developing the country. I am not generalising, I just believe this is a mentality ingrained in a lot of people I have met (and I am fortunate to have met people from Singapore, China, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.).
Not just Asia, but the world in general needs to understand how connected we are to what everyone does. If an engineer can build a bridge for you, a humanities student can connect you to your heritage, can build you a world where you can understand the failings of humanity and solve the current world’s crisis. But lack of awareness is indeed leading the world nowhere.
Africa is the place where all of Humanity began, the Middle East is a region with immense history, especially with regards to women rights. But stereotypification in this connected world of the internet is making us more and more inert. It is making us retreat to a smaller bubble of generalisations and typifications and there is a need to move beyond what we read over the internet to understanding the situation using our common sense. Don’t assume Ebola is everywhere, the countries mostly affected by it are Sierra Leone, Liberia – most countries in West Africa. Go and read medical articles and NGO bulletins, which show the amount of help being given by doctors around the world to eradicate the disease, and how some of them have actually succeeded. Don’t label all Muslim countries as backward or conservative – Egypt has had an immense history of women’s movements, women activists like Doria Shafik advocated suffrage rights for women in the 1940’s (That’s before the independence of many non- Muslim countries around the world). For some women in the Middle East, veiling during the 19th and 20th century became a symbol of feminism, or asserting their right over their body.
History is not just what we read in the books. History is interpreted by anyone, any way they want, and instead of just hear say, go out there in the world and try to understand why people say what they say and how we can say what we want to say by not sounding corny or being unapologetically stupid. And by going ‘out there’, I don’t mean buying a ticket and flying to Syria or Israel right away- I mean getting yourself out of that tiny bubble and becoming aware that we are more connected than we have ever been and generalizations are meant to be undermined.
History is really a knowledge to be had and disseminated. So, the next time if you wish to ask someone how many dates they had to remember while reading History, remember to not ask such a question again. 🙂