Reading history is one of my favourite pastimes. In fact, more correctly, reading history is my key professional development activity, if I take the view that writing this blog and talking about ideas are the most important things I do, and treat my day job as what really is - an instrument to pay my bills! Though my reading list may seem haphazard to some who only read on purpose, those lists - as I am becoming conscious of them recently - are around the big questions I labour with at the time, and most of these big questions, for me, have a historical nature.
For example, consider the question that dominates my conversations, and readings, at this very moment. It is - how does a society fall under the spell of an autocrat? I know why this question troubles me. In India, my origin country, democracy is taken for granted - various television talk shows proclaim that democracy in India is irreversible because it is so chaotic - and various democratic institutions, both at the Union and the state levels, are slowly but surely, becoming more autocratic. In Britain, where I live, and where I consider democracy more deeply-rooted, I see a culture of hatred and blame - consider David Cameron's Swarm warning - mainly directed at the hapless refugees fleeing from chaos and poverty in Syria, Iraq and Libya (countries which, not incidentally, Britain and its allies helped destabilize), but then also to immigrants of all kinds and colour. Whether or not this endangers British democracy, this pushes me to explore how much we can take democracy for granted - and how afraid we should be about a relapse of authoritarianism.
Now, at this point, a clarification is due. There may be a tendency to draw historical parallels with Nazi Germany or Italy of Mussolini with today's India, and admittedly, I have done it occasionally. But studying history tells one that history does not repeat itself. Each new event have the knowledge of the earlier event within it - just recall how we responded to the Great Recession of 2008 - and therefore, each time, history takes a different path. However, it may also be apparent, with the hindsight afforded by history, that there are some general principles of historical development - and thinking about these general principles, or Forces of History, is perhaps the greatest benefit of studying history.
So, going back to the previous example, there is no straight path from Mr Cameron's unprincipled and rather cowardly politicking to the emergence of a vile dictator, and studying history for making predictions is a futile enterprise. However, there are some principles at work here. This presumption of blame, the identification of the other, for many like Hannah Arendt was the first step to the totalitarian abyss, and history affords an insight why this could be so. There may be lots of different factors at play at different times, including the emergence of forceful personalities and ideas, who may influence history as much as getting influenced by it, but those general principles seem to hold through time.
In science, plurality of anecdotes is not evidence, as Carl Sagan used to say. History is not a science - its findings are not repeatable or verifiable outside its own immediate context - and our knowledge of history is almost always anecdotal, and never total. So, while my statement that the developments in India and Britain are making me study history of totalitarianism may look like I am trying to predict what happens next, I am aware that history is not a study of causation. Rather, I am seeking to understand what is happening around me, which by itself is an worthy goal. Studying the past to understand the present, I would claim, allows one not to predict, but to actively participate in constructing the future.
This is why the current disengagement with history - ranging from lack of attention to it in the schools to lack of funding for history departments and research in Higher Education - may have disastrous effect on societies, because it may end up making people mere onlookers to the future. A historically informed approach to the future allows people neither to be fatalistic - like in India, democracy is fate - or disinterested - as in Britain, it is a political game - but engaged and watchful.
One last thought. These statements may also appear pretentious to some, particularly to those who may treat history as thought concerning big subjects, and a tool for policy-makers than ordinary citizenry. This is, in fact, one precise principle that I am picking up from my efforts to study autocracy. That we may relegate history as big subject, not concerning common life and mere a policy tool, may be one of the tendencies that undermine democracy, as it follows that our votes should only be about our personal gains rather than our common goals, our desires instead of our responsibilities, and about the privileges that we seek rather than the sacrifices we are willing to make. From this angle, historical knowledge is the context of social imagination, and in ever-renewed social imagination, remain the future of democracy.
Popular posts from this blog
A friend has recently forwarded me a quote from Lord Macaulay's speech in the British Parliament on 2nd February 1835. I reproduce the quote below: "I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation." The email requested me to forward me to every indian I know. I was tempted, but there were two oddities about this quote. First, the language, which
Introduction : The Business of Gift Giving Business gift giving has always been common and contentious at the same time. Business gifts are usually seen as an ‘advertising, sales promotion and marketing communication medium’ (Cooper et al , 1991). Arunthanes et al (1994) points out that such gifting is practised usually for three reasons: (a) in appreciation for past client relationships, placing a new order, referrals to other clients, etc.; (b) in the hopes of creating a positive, first impression which might help to establish an initial business relationship; and (c) giving may be perceived as a quid Pro quo (i.e. returning a favour or expecting a favour in return for something). The practitioners of gift-giving generally argue that doing business is often an aggregation of personal interactions and relationships, and gift-giving should be seen as a natural way of maintaining and enhancing these relationships. ‘Business gifts, especially one given in the course of the festive s
In most societies today, making profits are accepted as moral, if not especially praiseworthy. This was not as obvious as it appears today – people used to be embarrassed about making a profit not so long ago. Crazy as it seems today, it is worth thinking why it was so. Profits, as economists will put it, is the reward for risk-taking, for putting a business enterprise together in the pursuit of an objective. In this definition, remember, profits are not what it is commonly understood to be – the gross middle-line towards the bottom – but a figure net of entrepreneur’s earning [wages for his labour], dividends and interests on borrowed capital, and provisions for building and other physical assets [a sort of rent, offsetting what these assets could have earned if leased out]. This pure profit – surplus – accrues to a business as a reward to its organisation, for the act of entrepreneurship itself. Economists were divided on how this surplus comes about. The conventional wisdom was,
Buzzwords have disadvantages. Right now, experiential learning is one, and that means we put the label on everything and it stops to mean anything. Also, this means reasonable conversation about experiential learning becomes difficult - at times such as this, either you preach experiential learning or you are traditional, antiquarian and hopelessly out of touch. But, overlooking the limitations of experiential learning can cause big problems. Experiential Learning does many things - putting practice at the heart of learning is an important paradigm shift - but not everything, and it is important to be aware what it does not do. Usually, we equate the terms Project-based Learning (the method) with Experiential Learning (the idea) and Learning from Experience (the ideal), treating them as one and the same and using the terms interchangeably. Any talk about distinctive meaning of these terms is usually seen as pedantic, but really represent very different ideas about education.
Today, Helen Goddard, 26, a highly popular music teacher of a City School for Girls, has been sentenced to 15 months in prison. Her crime was to carry out a year long lesbian affair with one of her pupils, who appeared in the court and admitted that the affair was consensual and it was she who pressured Helen into the affair. For Helen, a bright musician and a devout Chistian, this is an extraordinary lapse of judgement. Also, she was teaching in the £13,000 private girls only school in London. She was surely aware what the consequences of her action will be. The fact that she still could not stop herself tells us that lovers do not always act rationally, something we always knew. There is more in this affair than personal tragedies. For a start, this has all the dramatic elements: a bright, beautiful teacher more in Julia Roberts mould [as in Mona Lisa Smile], a stiff upper lip school [not unlike Wellesley] and a story like Notes On A Scandal with an added twist. Indeed, Helen
Introduction Erna Petri née Kürbs, a farmer’s daughter from Herressen in Thuringia, arrived in Ukraine with her three year old son to join her husband Horst in June 1942. Horst, an SS leader inspired by Nazi ideologue Dr Richard Walter Darré, settled in the plantation of Grzenda, just outside today’s Lviv, to become a German Gentleman-Farmer. Erna saw Horst beating and abusing the workers in the plantation within two days of arriving there, which was, as Horst explained, necessary for establishing authority. Erna joined in enthusiastically, settling into a combination of roles of ‘plantation mistress, prairie Madonna in apron-covered dress lording over slave labourers, infant-carrying, gun-wielding Hausfrau.’  However, there were clear rules in the plantation, and Erna was very much expected to play the woman’s role of being a Cake-and-Coffee hostess. When four Jews were caught in the estate while trying to escape from a transport to a death camp, Horst told Erna and her female
A week into lockdown and things are beginning to change. Mornings are late, afternoons are lazier and evenings never end; meditations are filling out the time for Yoga routines and Netflix profiles are strewn with half-finished movies. This state-mandated, state-funded period of idleness is being likened to being called up to serve, but is nothing like that: Such a comparison is really an affront to the idea of service. Instead, this is just one long streak of panic; of the centre not holding and life not going on as usual. With the usual patterns and rules in suspended animation and business talk - and business - being rendered meaningless, space is opening up for unusual questions: Is Capitalism about to end? Is this the death of globalisation? Does it get uglier from here? My grandfather's generation would have scoffed at us. They saw through wars and pandemics. But, in fairness, we haven't had a life-ending crisis of our own. Notwithstanding the experiences of th
The ‘Why’ Question? Adolf Hitler was appointed the German Chancellor by President Von Hindenburg on 30th January 1933. This was an extraordinary turn of events. Previously, President Von Hindenburg consistently refused to appoint Hitler the Chancellor, despite the impressive electoral performance of NSDAP in July 1932, Hitler’s uncompromising demand of the Chancellor’s post and a repeat election in November 1932 which failed to break the deadlock. Explaining his refusal, Hindenburg wrote in a letter on 24th November, “a presidential cabinet led by you would develop necessarily into a party dictatorship with all its consequences for an extraordinary accentuation of the conflicts in the German people.” The question ‘why’ Hitler was appointed Chancellor, despite the President being acutely aware of what might follow, is therefore a significant one. The NSDAP had election successes throughout 1932, and was already the biggest single party in the Reichstag and various Landtags acros
I wrote a note on Kolkata, the city I come from and would always belong to, in July 2010. Since then, the post attracted many visitors and comments, mostly critical, as most people, including those from Kolkata, couldn't see any future for the city. My current effort, some 18 months down the line, is also prompted by a recent article in The Economist, The City That Got Left Behind , which echo the pessimism somewhat. I, at least emotionally, disagree to all the pessimism: After all Kolkata is home and I live in the hope of an eventual return. Indeed, some change has happened since I wrote my earlier post: The geriatric Leftist government that ruled the state for more than 30 years was summarily dispatched, and was replaced by a lumpen-capitalist populist government. Kolkata looked without a future with the clueless leftists at the helm; it now looks without hope. However, apart from bad governance, there is no reason why Kolkata had to be poor and hopeless. It sits right
Meritocracy is a convenient lie, as Socrates foretold, and it is the ballast of the social system we have built. The story goes like this. Once upon a time, we had kings and queens and their families and nobles, who got the best meat and the best mate, and everyone lived happily. But then the things fell apart as luxury corrupted the nobles and feebled the spirits of their offsprings - and the peasants and the artisans came claiming their fair share. So we had the age of revolutions in Europe and North America, when we created a new, fairer social system, under a 'natural aristocracy of men', where destiny was no longer shaped by birth but by intelligence and hard work, and anyone could make it in life. And, everyone again lived happily ever after. Of course, this did not really happen. Slavery persisted, at least for a long time. The 'fair' system mostly excluded the real peasants and workers and once they have done their duty dying for various revolutions, they were s
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.