When I was little, I detested studying history. Maybe it was about remembering the years and the timelines of all the emperors and kings, or maybe it was about the names of all the Greek philosophers I could never fathom. I didn’t find it interesting or necessary to study what happened in the past. I mean, who cared how the French Revolution happened? We got our ideas of liberty, fraternity and equality, which was more than enough for me.
But then I realised, history isn’t that simple. You see, all my life I was taught that history can be divided into two groups – the good and the bad. The European colonisers? Bad. The freedom struggles? Good. The Black Death? Bad. The Renaissance? Good. But the world doesn’t quite work that way. History can hardly be chalked up to good or bad because there is no one singular history. There are multiple histories and multiple perspectives. Usually, history is written by the ones in power, the elite, and is awfully biased.
Notice how Eurocentrism is evident in all stories we are told about the past, notice how the Roman Empire is always regarded as majestic and all the flaws are ignored. Notice how nobody bothers talking about the civilisations and empires in Latin America and Africa before the colonisation. As if their lives before the Europeans walked in didn’t matter, as if they weren’t part of the world when we study world history.
Ever wonder why we only talk about the people in power in history and not the commoners, which actually made up for most of the population? Forget the kings of the Ming dynasty, I want to know about the life and rituals a common Chinese person followed. What was their system of education? How about their religious identities? What about the women? Why do I only know about Queen Elizabeth and Cleopatra? Were other women not important, did they not hold important positions? Did they not contribute to the society? What about economics? How did tax systems evolve around the world, and how were people governed? What about their literature and their mythology and architecture – not of the grand palaces, but of the common man’s humble homes?
History is fascinating. History is vast and endless and it teaches us so many things. History teaches us that even revolutions were flawed, very flawed. When the American revolution failed to free slaves and failed to give equality to women and men of all socio-economic status, it was flawed. It makes us question morality and our principles. War-rapes were considered acceptable, even encouraged. It was fine to kill innocent people and destroy entire cities in the name of religion. People were considered property not so long ago, and even the great philosopher Aristotle claimed some people were meant to be slaves. If all of that sounds so wrong, is it not possible that our morally acceptable norms are indeed flawed even today?
But most of all, history is a reminder of the fact that all our actions shape not only our future but the entire worlds’. I am not here to defend or appreciate what happened in the past. I’m only here to say that whether we like it or not, what happened in the past shaped our present and will continue to shape our future. If we had never discovered agriculture, we wouldn’t be living in this world of abundance where I can afford to write blogs instead of hunting and gathering. If it weren’t for Columbus’s discovery of America, we would never have tomatoes and spices and so many others things that are now our staple ingredients and the typical image of cowboys on a horse wouldn’t be a thing because they didn’t have horses. If it weren’t for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, we wouldn’t have the struggles for freedom that we did, we wouldn’t understand that humans, irrespective of their race, can never be someone else’s property.
And that’s why history is important. It makes us ask questions, questions that don’t have a simple answer. It makes us analyse whatever information we have and look for loopholes and flaws, look for other possible perspectives and explanations. It makes us appreciate where we are today. It makes us aware of the possible dangers that are in store for us if we aren’t careful enough. It makes us understand that in the end, humanity is accountable for whatever happens, in the past, present and the future.