Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | What lessons from the past could imply for our future

For much of modernity, the study of history has been a largely political narrative of great men (quite rarely, women), their decisions, victories, and follies. This has been the case across cultures and in various parts of the world. This way of seeing the past as a series of dynasties continues to shape much of history education in our schools and universities. The purpose of studying history has been to simply understand the facts of the past and perhaps relate those to the present questions of identity at the individual, national or societal level.

History is in fact much broader than political history. It can involve, for example, the history of science and technology, or more specifically, the history of how water has shaped the course of civilizations and cultures. Analysing the impact of water on the history of a region requires the study of various disciplines such as geography, geology, meteorology, agriculture, civil engineering, and politics in an interwoven way.

Often, the most historically-momentous changes in any given era are not fully visible to those who live through them. Most histories of the 20th century, for instance, quite understandably focus on the political narratives of war, peace and freedom, or, in some cases, on economic development. But when we look back today, it is evident that one of the most consequential histories of the 20th century is that of anthropogenic climate change. Indeed, many of humanity’s dominant challenges today arise from the unintended consequences of scientific progress made in the last century.

The purpose of studying history needs to be broader, too. Building on the earlier example of water, we must ask the question why we today find ourselves on the brink of the worst water crisis ever in south Asian history. In answering this question, we must seek lessons from the past that would inform our plans for the future. Indeed, the study of history must deliver learning outcomes such as empathy, humility, and perspective relevant to the unpredictable world of the future.

How can the study of history help a learner develop empathy? When we examine the question of what a historical truth is, we realise that there are multiple ways in which events can be memorialized. For example, much of colonial history has been presented through the lens of Western imperial powers. However, one of the most influential movements in Indian historical research, the school of subaltern studies, attempts to capture the world views and the historical memory of non-elite and marginalized groups in India’s past. This builds empathy for others and a respect for diverse views of the world. There is great value in seeing ourselves as others see us, and in seeing in the struggles of others a mirror of our own.

What can history teach us about humility? We are often so absorbed in our own selves that we do not think about the world beyond our life spans. History reminds us that we are but tiny specks in the vast desert of time. New approaches to history can shake our ego-centricity. For example, we might study history with nature and other species, rather than humanity, at the centre.

Finally, history can help us understand the context for decision-making and develop effective, even if imperfect intuition, through a study of instances, decisions and outcomes. In this respect, the history of policymaking, including the study of paths not taken and that of the unintended consequences of well-intentioned interventions, can be illuminating.

Beyond the question of what history can be and why we must study it, there is also the question of how we can study history in innovative ways. For example, we may integrate an environmental angle into the study of past decisions, as an important force shaping the range of choices and constraints faced by past societies. Scholars in the digital humanities have begun to use techniques of data science to generate new insights on large-scale patterns in cultural, social and economic history. Analysing historical what-if scenarios, such as how different societies coped with natural disasters, can help develop critical thinking.

We must also consider how to connect the past with the future. We might begin to think about the long-term consequences of human progress taking place today. When the engineers and architects of modern India set about building dams, they did so with the intention of liberating farmers from the vagaries of the monsoons. However, their unintended consequences far outstripped what they could envisage. Could we today think of what impact Artificial Intelligence would have on our world 50 years hence?

Further, the reality of climate change has been indisputable for decades now, yet the world has struggled to do anything about it. History can help us better understand how political rhetoric, self-interest, manipulation and, more broadly, culture shape our response to future threats.

It is often said that the scale and speed of disruptive change that we are living through renders history less relevant as a guide to the future. However, culture and values change far more slowly than technology. Hence, we must instil in youngsters a critical sense of the past so that they may be better prepared for an unpredictable future.

Some faculty members of Krea University also contributed to this piece

Kapil Viswanathan & Sunil Amrith are, respectively, vice-chairman of Krea University and professor of South Asian history at Harvard University

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