This is a simple question really, with an even simpler array of answers, all of which belong to one overriding factor – that without history we, as individuals and as belonging to communities, are helpless and lost in the present without understanding our past.
Palestinian historian, Edward W. Said, long time collaborator of Noam Chomsky and easily one of the 20thC’s greatest thinkers, sums up the wider significance of studying history and highlights the extent to which an intellectual historian is, essentially, an exorciser of ignorance.
‘The [role of the] intellectual … cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’être is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.’
A good example of the above would be those intellectual
historians who represent the exploited and wronged peoples of the minority who have been abused by an Imperialist majority – for example Christine Kinnealy when discussing the exploited Irish (Catholic and Protestant) under British imperialist rule, particularly during An Gorta Mor (the Great Hunger) or Ilan Pappé, the Israeli historian who provides a contemporary history of the plight of Palestinians within the occupied territories and details a history of al Nakba of 1947, a period in time whereby conflict between Israeli and Palestinian resulted in just under 1 million Arab Palestinians being permanently displaced.
Of course, depending on which political narrative or subjective outlook which the historian subscribes to will shape entirely their type of ‘truth’ as presented as historical fact and any historian who claims to be free of value, subjectivity or political bias is, of course, lying.
This is why history is so powerful, as it can be distorted, ignored, moulded and reshaped as truth or lies and, if backed up by a powerful state broadcaster or mass media machine, be widely accepted without question.
It is therefore no coincidence that history was the favoured and most widely read subject of one of the 20thC’s greatest political revolutionaries, Ernesto ‘Ché’ Guevara, and that one of the most significant achievements he initiated as part of the Cuban revolutionary movement whilst working under brothers Fidel and Raul Castro from the tropical terrain to the city centre, was to set up a publishing house and print press disseminating pamphlets and short texts regarding the historical exploitation of the Cuban farming and peasant class at the hands of American backed puppet ‘democracies’.
This ensured that a mass of people would now view their histories from a different and more politicised perspective, thus wildly changing their present – and so many peasants became guerrillas in the fight for Socialism in Cuba.
So, why indeed is history worth studying and why do we need it – simply put, the pen of the historian will always be mightier than the pistol of the most determined general.
After all, this pen has the power to create truth from narrative and at the same time, create a present day belief system based on historical fiction if the need is there by present day governments and corporations.
In the same way overbearing and commanding mothers will shout ‘you’ll eat what I tell you to eat’ at her questioning child who wants something different, so to the commanding and abusive imperialist state landlord shouts, ‘you’ll believe what I tell you to believe’, at her questioning citizen.
Knowing ones history and therefore knowing ones supposed place within the social order and hierarchy which ought always to be questioned, can provide a key to unlocking such shackles of state oppression.
If we do not appreciate and study history to find our own questions and ultimately our own answers, then a blinkered, naive and unquestioning citizenship we help to recreate generation after generation, therefore allowing ones ignorance of their past to ruin and rust their very own peoples future.