Monday, June 06, 2016

7/100: Why I Have Signed Up to Study History

The big news on my side is that I have now enrolled to study History at Birkbeck College. Something I always wanted to do, but in the late 80s India when I was entering college, this was considered crazy and I was discouraged from doing it. All my peers appeared in the Engineering and Medical entrance examinations, which, despite my decent grades in school leaving examinations, I did not like to do, becoming an oddball in overtly vocationally oriented India. I took up to study Economics as some sort compromise. But this is one regret that stayed with me, and in order not to leave any regrets, I have now decided to go back to school and study it formally.

It should still be considered crazy. I have no professional need for it, and the degree would not help me to earn more. All I am trying to do is to be good at something which I have a genuine interest in, and something, so I consider, I can remain consistently interested in, long enough to complete a Ph D eventually. My other Post-graduate qualifications are in Economics and Education, but I see neither of these to be my native discipline. My T skills are rooted in my knowledge of history, and this is my attempt to gain a formal recognition of it.

But even this justification, linking skills with the study of history, should be considered crazy. History has stopped being an useful subject: In fact, some Indian states have proposed removing history altogether from the school curriculum, focusing on STEM subjects instead. And, this is not just India, where expectations are constructed around narrowly defined routine technical jobs, demanding less of creativity and imagination and where lack of ambition is considered to be a positive attribute. History, as a discipline, is on the back-foot everywhere: Variously, it is considered to have ended, or have rendered irrelevant as the mankind claimed to have broken decisively from the cycles of progress and decline, and reached a point of ever-continued abundance. Future, and its tools, are all that matters: Considering the past now is a matter for the 'academic', leisurely or limited to people in the heritage industry.

These are precisely the points I do not agree with, and worry about the consequences of taking our history-lessness too far. It does seem that we have lost the concept of historical time, and started believing that all actions have instant consequences, and conversely, if they do not have immediate consequences, the actions are worth nothing. This is somewhat linked to our self-justification of being the most gifted, most free and most innovative generation of all time, a wilfull blindness of all the work that went into building the circumstances of the present time, making our freedoms possible.

One would wonder why we think this way - it is obviously silly to think that we have conjured up the modern world from thin air - but this is consistent with our current narrative of innovation and creation. We believe in making things from thin air, something out of nothing! That, as in the art of making money, is our conception of the modern Hero, unleashed from the past, baggageless. This is not just rhetoric, though our love of show and rhetoric makes such a fantasy believable: This is what the modern faith is all about.

However, this poses a great danger for our ability to create a future for those who will come after us - our grandchildren and beyond! It seems that we are not just condemned to repeat History as we do not study it, our forgetfulness of history makes us impotent to create it too. The freedoms that we enjoy, that many preceding generations had to struggle for, we take for granted: We endanger them by assuming that they, our rights to vote, our right not to be discriminated, our right to worship any god we may choose, our right to speak, were always there - and we forget to worry about them, work for them, guard them from encroachment! We build capitalist Disneylands like Dubai or Singapore, and forget that true sustainable futures are not built with tall buildings and modified nature, but with an ability of the common person to hold the powerful to account. We build nifty technologies and call it progress, but forget to change our frames of mind to set our technological priorities to improve conditions of human beings, alleviate water shortages, or educate greater numbers. All of this, I shall claim, has something to do with our self-imposed innocence about how we got here.

So, that, in short, motivates me to study history, respectfully, professionally, whole-heartedly. I shall continue to work in Education, that choice has already been made, but I believe this effort will improve my writing and allow me, finally, to find a discipline.

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