WHAT IS HISTORY? It depends on ……

Ebrahim Essa’s Remarks on History Textbooks and How They Differ from Earlier Times (the mercury, September 8) brings to the fore the timeless question: what is history?

Many books have been written on this question, none of which have produced a single universal definition. What is clear, however, is that it is basically a collection of established facts that can point to causes and effects when looking at the past. The use of the word “may” is to warn that whatever one establishes as the causes and effects of an event is unlikely to be unanimously accepted by others studying the same event, since, unlike science, the past cannot be studied empirically .

History is really an endless argument about the past and therefore not static but subject to change in terms of revision of knowledge, discovery of new facts or later developments that may change the perspective from which a certain aspect of the past was previously viewed. It is also subject to ideological, political, national, cultural and religious beliefs. The past, of course, cannot be changed, but what changes is how it is viewed, questioned, and interpreted.

The first difficulty in creating a history curriculum is the sheer size of the subject, for there is a history of everything and everyone. The second challenge that arises is the need to provide context to the selected periods or themes. The third hurdle is to recognize that valid interpretation is not possible until a mastery of the basic facts is achieved.

Omission and commission are two aspects that characterize historical accounts. The first concerns what is left out. Was it because it deviated from the narrative being driven, or was it just considered irrelevant? Facts included in or excluded from an account may reflect a particular political or ideological approach.

What makes history insightful, interesting and, it has to be said, confusing, is the variety of interpretations. A classic case study is: What caused World War I? Depending on the nationality of the historian writing his account, one finds a blame game between the main protagonists – British, French, German, Russian. And if you read a Russian communist’s account, he will argue that the war was caused by capitalist greed.

Understanding history is therefore quite a challenge. However, the advantage of studying is that it serves to develop skills in dealing with information. In a world full of false and fabricated, biased and sensationalist information, the ability to cut through verbiage, distinguish relevant from irrelevant and establish relative objectivity is a great asset. A study of history also improves language skills because, unlike the sciences, which have specific terminologies, language is the vehicle on which history depends to express itself.