Wednesday, 6 July 2011

HISTORY AND THE FISHMONGER’S SLAB




In a recent episode of the hit animation series The Simpsons, the doting Marge is shown as a college student (with her hair gracefully brushing her shoulders) coming out of a particularly enlightening history class. She runs to Homer and says, “Homie, did you know that history is written by the winners?” Homer Simpson, in his characteristic dim-witted behaviour guffaws and says, “But I thought it was written by the losers!” Jokes and puns aside, what do we understand by the term ‘history’?
For many of us, the most tiresome and tedious subject in school that needed to be studied was history. The chore of remembering each and every event chronologically as well as the dates (year or sometimes even the day!) was just too much of a burden, a drone of facts that needed to be digested, just like a bitter medicine. But such a sombre view of history, in my opinion, results from the misguided pedagogy of our educational system. History is much more vast and meaningful, too.
            E. H. Carr in his What is History? tries to explain the meaning of history, how a historian should, ideally conduct him/herself and how history ought to be. First published in the 1960s, this book is considered a classic and serves as a good guidebook to approach history. In short, Carr discusses the philosophy of history. Against the background of Carr’s book, I would also like to explore a few issues of teaching history in our schools.
            An essay by Gananath Obeyesekere in the Economic and Political Weekly a few months back pointed out that “…no one can be certain about what actually occurred in history and one must be satisfied with ‘reconstructing’ history from the bits and pieces of evidence that we possess. History is always a matter of interpretation and interpretation permits considerable leeway for disagreement.” Carr also makes a similar point, “The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate [emphasis mine].” He states the example of Caesar crossing the Rubicon as constituting a historical fact. Many beasts of burden as well as people have also crossed the Rubicon which equally qualify as historical facts but are not considered by the historian as such.
            Carr says that, “The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him.” The metaphor of the fish and the fishmonger should have no trouble in etching itself in the minds of Goans!
            To me, as a student of history, these abovementioned observations are basic. In schools (as well as in the universities) we are made to believe that whatever is in the textbooks is true. But since history is an interpretation there can be counter-arguments; are the students in a classroom encouraged to disagree and counter-argue? Without knowing what exactly is history, is it prudent to start learning history? Wouldn’t a parent be mortified and horrified if a child is taught how to solve quadratic equations without knowing the basic additions, subtractions, divisions and multiplications? And what would be the cognitive state of the child subjected to such misguided pedagogy?
            Importance of knowing the background of the historian is discussed by Carr. It is very important to know the biases of a historian as they would make him/her choose certain facts and discard the rest for historical interpretation. His/her analysis too would proceed in a way that supports his/her ideological leanings and biases (or “buzzing”). “Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing,” Carr says.
            I do find the definition that Carr gives about history very holistic, “‘What is history?’ is that it is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.” In the Indian and Goan contexts, the colonial historiographies were replaced by Indian/Hindu nationalist historiographies; at the same time some scholars tried to move in a post-colonial direction while not falling in the traps of questionable triumphs of nationalism (a good example would be Teotonio R. de Souza’s Medieval Goa). We need to realize that history is not a static entity but a dynamic process shaped by the political climate and the problems existing at that point of time. A process that continues…
            History primarily depends on written sources. Carr criticizes the tendency of historians to believe whatever is in the written documents. “If you find it in the documents, it is so. But what, when we get down to it, do these documents – the decrees, the treatise, the rent-rolls, the blue books, the official correspondence, the private letters and diaries – tell us? No documents can tells us more than what the author of the document thought – what he thought had happened, what he thought ought to happen or would happen, or perhaps only what he wanted others to think he thought, or even only what he himself thought he thought.”
            Since history is essentially a tool for the elite and powerful to propagate their ideologies and since our educational system is hell-bent on teaching our kids history without actually teaching the meaning and methodology of history, I feel that it is unjust to teach history to young kid whose minds are very sensitive.  Perhaps, history can be introduced from class VIII onwards when a little more maturity is attained, with the first lesson being – you’ve guessed it! – What is history? In the previous classes, I feel, sociology can be introduced as, what it fundamentally teaches us is that, there are many ways of looking at the world and all have a legitimate right to do so. A mangled and biased understanding of history, who knows, may make one’s child into a venom spewing monster.
            Inasmuch as this book is a practical guide to a student of history and a brilliant critique of the various nuances and processes involved in the construction of history, I feel What is History? has the potential for augmenting a lay person’s understanding of the historical processes.


Name: What is History? (2nd Ed.)
Author: E. H. Carr
Year: 1980
Published by: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0-14-013584-8

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: July 6, 2011)

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