The Moment of History

Who wants to really study History anymore? Has it not ended already, as Francis Fukuyama famously declared? And, besides, what role may it have at a time when we are so busy making the future?

The questions are personal, as I went back to the University at a late stage to read History, prompting such, and other, derision. It was deemed impractical, idiotic or pompous, based on the kindness of the commentator, but never - even once - useful. Why didn't I do an MBA instead, or, if I really wanted to write, a degree in Journalism? History was unlikely to give me any real skill, and, any reasonable supply of TLAs (three letter acronyms, for the uninitiated), so very crucial for getting ahead in one's career. History is, at best, so dated!

However, I actually very much think the opposite, and I shall explain why. This is not about explaining my decision to go back to school - that I have tried elsewhere - but rather why History has become a more important discipline than ever in the last couple of years.

Indeed, the first and the most obvious reason is that History has not ended, but rather made a spectacular comeback. The ghosts of the Twentieth Century have been truly resurrected, and ideas that we lived by, of Liberal Progress, Scientific Attitude, and even Humanism, are no longer to be taken for granted. With Trump on Twitter, History is a constant battleground; but out and beyond, every country seems to be facing off their history, and fashioning new identities. History has never been so very interesting, so obviously relevant and so intensely engaging.

But there is more, and this is about the failure of Economics. Economics as a discipline dominated the Social Sciences, commanding greatest prestige, most money and even the field's only Nobel Prize. Economists' ideas truly shaped the world, at least since the 70s. And, yet, its limitations are starkly apparent: Its inability - and disinterest - to attach value judgments to economic activities rendered it impotent for moral guidance when we need some. Just as everything is measured by economic terms - the GDP fetish is so visible even in the poorest of countries - Economics is going the way of Geography: Its diagnosis is no longer infallible and its remedies are almost embarrassing. With the ideal of the self-loving value-free consumer, so central to the economists' vision of the world, becoming quaint, History is no longer about the past but the future, enabling the long view, restoring the moral imperative and balancing the social with the selfish.

Finally, I have seen the effects of building a nation without History. I was around in India and was indeed a participant in the build-up to its massive IT services, pushing people into IT education which reached its peak when the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh removed History from its school curriculum to make space for STEM  (and created a massive Engineering Education boom by providing state subsidies to all Engineering students). Many years on, not just there are failing Engineering Colleges and massive unemployment - Indian IT services got blinded by its own success - but also a generation of people who are too willing to buy any nonsense that has been pedalled on Twitter or TV enough number of times. A society without history isn't a society at all, one without any sense of perspective, respect or compassion - and this has come to pass in many countries already.

So, I see this as the Historians' Moment - when engaging with History and learning from it have become so very crucial both for our individual well-being as well as the survival of our societies. 


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