Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A History Lesson

Wrote a review of Simon Winder's "The Man Who Saved Britain" for the Visual Bookshelf on my Facebook page this morning. Here's what I wrote: Simon Winder gives us Bond in context. The book covers the history of post-War Britain and highlights the disillusionment of the average Brit regarding the end of the glorious "British Empire". In the midst of these sentiments, Ian Fleming produced the novels that gave us James Bond - somewhat like a last gasp of the glory that was Britannia. The book is highly entertaining (sometimes even more than the original Bond books and films!) and hilarious. I found myself laughing on every page.

Truth is, Winder is not just hilarious. I found plenty that was useful from this book. Even used some of it in my history class yesterday. I was trying to convince my students regarding the importance of studying history. Did a revision of Form One history with them and realized that the main reasons why students hate history are: (i) textbooks are terribly written (if they resembled even 10% of how Simon Winder wrote, everyone'd be studying history); (ii) history teachers are terrible in presenting this stuff; (iii) students end up getting bored and failing to see the relevance of having a well-developed sense of history.

I paraphrased the following passages from Winder's book and the students got the point immediately:

"Why should we be interested in history? Many people are not. Perhaps the great majority live very thoroughly in the present - children have a horizon only centimetres from their toes, many people through exhaustion and daily need can think little about the past or the future, many others live largely in the future, through religion or ambition, personal or familial. To be interested in the past is both a specific activity and a very vexed one: history is as likely to be a source of toxins as of pleasure..."

The students were pleased to see a history teacher actually trying to understand their frustrations with developing even the remotest interest in studying history. One student even said that they study history simply because the Education Ministry made it compulsory! Another student explained that she could not see the relevance of history since there's no way that we can change the past anyway (sheesh! these kids were smarter than I thought!). I agreed with her and stole another analogy from Simon Winder:

"At some level history really is useless: to comment on history is as wan an activity as yelling at the players in a televised football game: they can't hear you, they don't care and it's already too late. For me this latent sense of horror is always best summed up by the villain in Umberto Eco's medieval fantasy The Name of the Rose, trapped in an underground passage. Nobody rescues him because by the time they can dig him out he will have died of asphyxiation. History and the application of history to the present shares this nightmare, with an almost unbreakable mesh between ourselves and present, unfolding events that cannot be torn through. What value does a reading of history have? Its great value has to be, as a historian recently summed it up, to "criticize, criticize, criticize". For me, nothing can be more valuable than this constant patrolling around an always shifting kaleidoscope of events and decisions, both in themselves (they explain why we are here, doing what we do, earning what we earn) and because their interpretation is in effect a cross-examination of the present and of ourselves."

From there, I took the class on a tour of the ancient past and our methods of discovering the treasures therein. We discussed Oral and Written traditions as well as the role of archaeology in verifying the facts (at the same time, giving them a panoramic view of the developments of civilizations and religion). We discussed the composition of religious books (Bible, Koran, Sanskrit Scriptures), their underlying sources in myths and oral traditions, and how "stories" are what bind the seemingly unrelated facts, events and peoples together. We talked about the Battle of Pellenor Fields (one of my student is a fantasy buff who's hooked on Tolkien, Eddings, etc.) and the people involved (why are you interested in them?). We then talked about the ancient Srivijaya and Majapahit Kingdoms and their supposed lineage to the Indus Civilization AND the Alexandrian Egyptian/Hellenistic Empires simultaneously. Got them intrigued by all the supposed links between ancient kingdoms and religious traditions. Finally, I showed them the parallels between Animism as a religion and Disney movies as mass entertainment. In other words, we had a ball! Covered three chapters of Form One history, laughed a lot, asked a lot of questions, answered a lot of doubts and had a great time. Wait till I get to British Imperialism and the other stuff... :)

As an aside, I told them about the process of recording/interpreting history. Opened my Redaction-Criticism toolbox and brought out the two-headed beast of: (i) selection and (ii) arrangement of facts/events. History is what we make of it - it is to be meditated upon more than to be studied (but of course, for the sake of banal public examinations, the nationally-prescribed method of rote-learning and memorization may be required). Ultimately, it is about people - the human condition, the world as stage. Talked about Herodotus and the quest for a unifying theory of history. The students laughed at the Greek's pessimistic worldview of humans existing simply as the playthings of the gods but started to take it more seriously once they saw the implications of such metaphysics. At that point, I questioned myself whether I'd gone too far? Was it advisable to start developing existential angst in these innocent teenage girls who should really be more interested in dresses, hairpins and boyfriends? I don't know. But the class ended at that point and we moved on to Geography instead...


pltypus said...

History is at best a summing up of man's prospect of his death as an individual and at worst the very real mortality of the human race.

History starting point is moot. Long time back, poorly educated momma boys invoked that "In the beginning...", well something started. Later on sodomized victimes from oxford started espousing the sudden starting point of everything and the evolution of species. Perhaps that was all a result of certain black hole trauma but the darkness continues till today with the black hole bang. To me it all sounds very kinky. Inspired and toxicated rainbow children said it all started at Woodstock 1969. I believe them. Jimi Hendrix played Woodstock and then expired. Poets have kept telling us that man is mad and has always been so. So much for the origin of species.

Those more enlightened like Koestler points to Hiroshima, 6 Aug 1945. The end of our species as homo sapiens. The beginning of the rise of homo maniacus. The only species unique in all existence in killing members of his own species. Man is alone in practicing intra-specific murder on individual or masses, in spontaneous or organized fashion, for motives ranging from sexual jealousy to petty disagreement about metaphysical doctrine. The 63years post Hiroshima can testify to the rampant massacre of the homo maniacus. Blame it on that idiot from texas or the next parasite to blow up the world, homo maniacus would cut up all heads to re-write history in the glorification of the species! Reasons enough to study history.

Hiro Nakamura where are you?

Uncle Screwtape said...

Hiro Nakamura is still trying to save Charlie (ref: hardcover novel tie-in).

So you've resurfaced. How's the leg? Any chance you'll be coming up to KUL? To recuperate, perhaps? Next weekend? :)