Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A History of Relevance

Some days it's hard to be a history major. Sure, I have the piece of paper on my wall and I pay the rent with the job it got me, but these days it's not exactly the key to unlocking a career that will lead to dizzying wealth and staggering power. Most often history majors seem to slip beneath notice, with pity targeted more at people who studied English or Communications or Pre-Law and are now waiting tables with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. It's a hell of a thing.

Just because there aren't many jobs that specifically seek out holders of history degrees, though, that doesn't diminish their value--particularly for those who retain even a sliver of the knowledge they picked up along the way. Unless you attended one hell of a bird school, you can't help but gain some familiarity with the way things went before you showed up, and that familiarity brings with it a measure of mental elasticity that can last for a long time after you take off that mortarboard.

Nevertheless, some people question it. Last year, CNN asked a simple question: "if students fail history, does it matter?" The article takes aim at the problem of students absorbing only superficial lessons, such as Abraham Lincoln's importance stemming from his beard, and confronts questions as to whether or not history education is even necessary, or is more of a distraction from immediately relevant subjects that will have direct impact on the abilities of students to make their way in the world. Depending on the perspective you're approaching it from it's easy to see the study of history as frippery, and with the current crisis hitting school boards across North America, I wouldn't be surprised to see history courses on the chopping block.

I see it time and again, no matter how remote or close at hand the specific slice of history is. I see people questioning even the necessity of learning about the Second World War, claiming that it's irrelevant to modern Western society - that it's irrelevant to modern Japanese society, even! If you think that, well, there's a quiet little tunnel between Honshu and Hokkaido that's looking for a buyer.

I'll throw this in, too. This guy can't possibly be relevant! I mean, look - he's just stone!

It's easy to think history is irrelevant because it's the study of what's dead and gone by... but like Faulkner said, "the past is never dead. It's not even past." The echoes of history, the deep and thrumming vibrations of strings plucked years or decades or centuries ago, fill the world and it's only that plenty of people can't pick them out from the background noise of their day-to-day lives. The present is loud, it's in-your-face... it's present and therefore hard to ignore; but worthwhile things are rarely easy.

Take, for example, the Second World War. If you don't know anything else about history you should at least know the basics about this, considering that when taken together it was perhaps the single most important event of the last hundred years--the First World War set up the pins, and it was twenty years later that they were knocked down. The legacy of the war is with us still. Take, for example, the continuing anti-nuclear protests in Japan--protests that become far more understandable when you are familiar with Japan's nuclear history. Hell, consider the present-day situation in East Asia between Japan, Korea, and China. Modern politics are still deeply, deeply, deeply influenced by what happened seventy years ago. If you don't have any understanding of the underlying reasons, the things that happen today will not make sense to you because you lack the proper tools for comprehension.

Even beyond that, a population that knows its own history is a stronger population, because history has always been a fertile field for politicians looking to spin national myths out of old straw. That sort of thing is going on right now in Canada, with the Conservatives' emphatic advancement of Canada's supposed "traditional martial virtues," all the way down to a War of 1812 Experience at Canada Place in Vancouver. A population that doesn't know its history can be more easily manipulated. A population that doesn't know its history can be lied to.

It's like George Orwell said about the world of 1984. "He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future."

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