As a historian, I am aware that much, if not most, of human past remains unrecorded and lost to history, that the everydayness, banality and triviality of most of human relations and interactions means that they cannot be and have not been recorded, let alone archived.
I am also aware, as many of us now are, that the past that has been recorded has been and continues to be subjected to selection, classication, framing and authorisation and, as such, it cannot be anything but fallible — records thus produced and preserved are never autonomous, self-generated, sovereign and wholly articulate. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the creation, organisation, preservation and even destruction of historical records cannot ever be neutral or impartial actions; instead, such actions reect a society’s or a community’s or even an individual’s fundamental preoccupations or concerns.
Political power, likewise, entails control of the records and, more generally, of memory. As George Orwell stated in his prophetic novel 1984, “Those who control the present control the past, [while] those who control the past control the future.”
Knowledge and power, as Foucault has pointed out, are in a dialectical and symbiotic relationship. Governments and states around the globe understand this very well. Scholars too are aware of this. For instance, last week I met some scholars in Karachi. They told me that when they visit the provincial or national archives, they experience much resistance in accessing the relevant materials — they are thoroughly interrogated as to the purpose behind their requests. Their motives are invariably deemed suspect.
Even in states such as Britain, where such surveillance is not so obviously exercised, we need to be aware that archives necessarily exclude a great deal that is deemed not to be of direct interest to its custodians. In other words, the archive, as a site of remembering, and doing the work of remembering, is also at the same time, to varying degrees, a project of forgetting.
During a Sindh University Symposium in January, British academic Khizar Humayun Ansari, OBE, made a powerful case for the need to make the study of history a significant discipline. Eos is reproducing his lecture below for its readers
Accordingly, the evidence that we nd in archives, I would suggest to you, is not simply ‘descriptive’ of the past but also ‘prescriptive’ of how people understand their present and how they want later generations to understand it too. It can often prove ‘proscriptive’ when it comes to imposing constraints on those who seek to use it to locate their own histories.
In this vein, consider, for instance, when I was gathering material remnants of Muslim lives in Britain, the focus of much of my ongoing research. The ‘official archives’ seemed to have little to say when it comes to their particular pasts. Given that these were official records, I realised that, as a serious historian, I needed to challenge their ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ if I was going to develop a meaningful historical narrative.
I also realised that in Britain today there exist very few archives that document the histories of its Muslim people and communities, their history there that actually goes back centuries. Unfortunately, the voices of generations of British Muslims are still rarely heard, and their stories largely remain untold.
Frustratingly, we are often unable to engage fully with their experiences because the necessary historical ‘hard’ evidence does not seem to exist, or remains inaccessible.
So, very often, I had to try to construct the historical experience of these communities by relying on sources created by elites or those associated with them, and then effectively reading against the grain, or between the lines, of what I could nd in fragments or scraps from the past in all kinds of forms.
So, we can certainly learn about the lives and experiences of ordinary people and marginalised groups from very limited sources available or accessible but — and this point I wish to emphasise — we must acknowledge that what we do learn remains largely a work of imagination, speculation and interpretation and so, inevitably, open to contestation and disagreement, as indeed is even well-sourced historical work to greater or lesser extent — historians are engaged in joining historical dots, not drawing a continuous line. And to clarify, when I use the term ‘imagination’, I do not mean ctionising history — rather, I mean we have to use what we know, and draw educated conclusions about what is less obviously evidenced.
We also need to understand how history as a discipline has changed over the centuries. Earlier historians considered History to be a scientific discipline; they believed that they had to show empirically how the past really was. However, this approach presupposed that there is a world out there — made up of objective facts — independent of the historians’ own consciousness. But modern historians now accept that ‘facts’ do not speak for themselves.
Facts only speak when they are called upon and deployed by the historian. It is historians who decide to which facts to give the oor and in what order or context. They realise that the past consists of innumerable events and actions, the overwhelming majority of which the historian is unaware and most of which have got lost or become forgotten.
Take, for example, the Battle of Plassey in Bengal in 1757, won by the East India Company. It is historians who have decided for their own reasons that this battle represents a fact/event of historical interest and is thus worth recording. Many other social and political facts/events/actions occurring precisely at the same time have ended up ignored and so remained unrecorded, even though they were just as real as the ones that caught the historian’s gaze, but were not turned into what we call historical facts.
What follows from these thoughts is the key realisation that what has happened in the past cannot be observed directly. Accordingly, the historian has reconstructed a phenomenon, an event or a process belonging to the past with the help of material evidence and/or written sources. ‘History’, we might say, is knowledge of the past, or rather the methods through which knowledge of the past can be gained.
There are, of course, many views and interpretations of history, different approaches to what factors are important in history. The main thing to remember is that when we learn about the past we do this through the mediation of different historians and, therefore, history is something different from the so-called “real” past. This reality makes it all the more important to study different, even competing, interpretations of the past and to consider the various kind of evidence that these different interpretation are based upon.
So why study history?
Let us now address the following questions, namely, what is the purpose of studying history, and what are its practical uses. This is a question that has been asked of me countless times, both by prospective students and non-academics. Like any subject of study, history requires justication: its advocates must explain why it is worth attention.
People live in the present. They plan for and worry about the future. History, however, is the study of the past. Given all the demands that are connected with living in the present and anticipating what is yet to come, why bother with what has been, what is over and done with?
It is true that historians do not perform heart transplants, improve highway design or arrest criminals (although history graduates can do quite of lot of these things). In a society that, quite correctly, expects education to serve useful purposes, the functions of history can seem more difficult to dene than those of engineering or medicine, perhaps. I accept that the products of historical study are less tangible — sometimes less immediate — than those that stem from certain other disciplines. But the fact remains that history is very useful — actually it is indispensable.
Indeed, there are many good reasons to study history. Studying history not only provides us with knowledge of the past, it also gives us understanding of how our own and other peoples’ societies have been created and then evolved. What happened in the past has an inuence on what happens today and the past has an inuence on the future. Studying history provides us with understanding of how different peoples and societies have solved different types of problems and conicts in different periods of times. This knowledge is used as a weapon in power struggles. Studying history helps us understand important aspects of contemporary conict dynamics.
History helps us understand people and societies
In the rst place, history offers a storehouse of information about how people and societies behave and operate.
For example, how can we evaluate war if the nation is at peace — unless we use historical materials? How can we understand genius, the inuence of technological innovation or the role that beliefs play in shaping family life, if we don’t use what we know about experiences in the past?
History offers the only extensive evidential base for the contemplation and analysis of how societies function, and people need to have some sense of how societies function simply to run their own lives in the here and now.
understanding change and how our society came to be
The past causes the present, and so the future. Anytime we try to know why something happened — to take some current developments, the ongoing situation in Indian-held Kashmir, the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act just passed in India, the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani ordered by US President Donald Trump, the Iranian retaliation and its shooting down of the Ukranian plane — we have to reect on historical factors in order to understand what happened, what is happening and what may happen in future. Sometimes, fairly recent historical knowledge will suffice to explain a major development, but often we need to look further back to identify the causes of change. Only through studying history can we grasp how things change; only through history can we begin to comprehend the factors that cause change; and only through history can we understand what elements of an institution or a society persist despite change.
History teaches lessons by telling us about people who have weathered adversity in real, historical circumstances, thus providing inspiration. History offers us examples of men and women in the past who successfully worked through moral dilemmas, but also of more ordinary people who provide lessons in courage, diligence or constructive protest.
History provides us with data about the emergence of national institutions, problems and values — it is the only signicant storehouse of such data available. It also offers evidence about how nations have interacted with other societies, providing international and comparative perspectives essential for responsible citizenship. Furthermore, studying history helps us understand how recent, current and prospective changes that affect the lives of citizens are emerging or may emerge and what causes are involved.
What skills does a student of history develop?
First, the study of history develops the ability to analyse and interpret evidence: its study builds experience in dealing with and assessing various kinds of evidence; it helps in learning how to interpret the statements of past political leaders; it helps form the capacity to distinguish between the objective and the self-serving among statements made by present-day political leaders; to distinguish and combine different kinds of evidence — public statements, private records, numerical data, visual materials; it develops the ability to make coherent arguments based on a variety of data. This skill can also be applied to information encountered in everyday life.
Second, the study of history develops the ability to identify and assess conicting interpretations. Experience in analysing and assessing past examples of change, determining its magnitude and signicance, is vital to understanding change in society today. The ability to identify continuities at work, alongside the skill to determine probable causes of change are essential skills in what we are regularly told is our “ever-changing world.”
History is useful in the world of work
Professional historians and their services are in great demand! There is accelerating public awareness that history provides a good basis for an extensive range of careers and, in many parts of the world, it is much appreciated and valued by a wide range of employers. Professional historians teach at various levels, work in museums and media centres, conduct historical research for businesses or public agencies, and participate in a growing number of historical consultancies. History’s study helps create good businesspeople, professionals and political leaders. Indeed, most people who study history use their training acquired in this way for broader professional purposes. Students of history thus nd their experience directly relevant to jobs in a variety of careers in elds such as law, civil service and public and business administration. Employers often deliberately seek students with the kinds of capacities historical study promotes. After all, learning to be a historian requires the development of research skills, the ability to nd and evaluate sources of information, and the means to identify and evaluate diverse interpretations.
The study of history also, very importantly, hones communication, writing and speaking skills and so is directly relevant to many of the analytical requirements in the public and private sectors, where the capacity to identify, assess and explain trends is essential.
Historical study is unquestionably an asset for a variety of work and professional situations, even though it does not, for most students, lead as directly to a particular job slot, as do some technical elds. Above all, it is the capacity for critical thinking that means history graduates can become leaders rather than simply readers.
So the next time, a student, a parent, an employer asks, “What is the point of studying history?”, I hope that you will feel condent in convincing them of its relevance and signicance in today’s world.
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 2nd, 2020