The Only Lesson That History Can Teach Us, Hindustan Times
 

I am sometimes asked about the ‘lessons’ that history can teach us. The question presumes that the study of the past can help provide guidance for the present—and future. But is this presumption accurate? Can politicians exercise power more wisely if they are better informed about the past?

The brilliant, maverick, historian A.J.P. Taylor was sceptical that they could. He once said about a certain French Emperor that ‘he was what I often think is a dangerous thing for a statesman to be — a student of history; and like most of those who study history, he learned from the mistakes of history how to make new ones’.

Of recent American Presidents, the one most keen on history was George W. Bush Jr. Fat tomes on past wars and dead politicians adorned his bedside table. History professors from Yale and Harvard came in to dine at the White House. Unlike A.J.P. Taylor, these scholars offered large claims about their discipline. Their expert understanding of the past, they believed, could help in crafting successful foreign policies in the present.

These professors and their books confirmed Mr Bush in his conviction that America must consolidate its role as a global policeman, thereby becoming, to the 21st century, what Great Britain had been to the 19th. The product of this willed learning from ‘the lessons of history’ were the misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I myself believe that history must stay scrupulously away from policy-making, that historians must keep their distance from politicians. Ours is a humanistic, not a technical, discipline. It aims at expanding human understanding, not at solving social (or national) problems. The historian cannot really assist or advise a Prime Minister on how to run a better Government or a CEO on how to make his firm more profitable.

From thirty years as a practicing historian, I have come to the conclusion that there is but one, singular, lesson of history. It is this— there are no permanent winners or losers.

This lesson is too often forgotten by individuals. Consider how long it took Sachin Tendulkar to realize that he was no longer good enough to play for India. He stayed on, and on, until—to spare everyone further embarrassment—the Cricket Board arranged a home series against the West Indies to allow him to reach the magic figure of 200 Tests without having to face Dale Steyn and Morne’ Morkel.

Indians far greater than Tendulkar have taken their pre-eminence for granted. In 1958, Jawaharlal Nehru took a holiday in Kashmir, where he decided he would retire as Prime Minister to make way for a younger man. On his return to Delhi, he was persuaded to reconsider. Had he left office in 1958, Nehru would be remembered as an extremely successful politician, who nurtured a democratic ethos and laid the foundations for economic development. By staying on, he presided over the China fiasco, damaging himself and his country as well.

Like individuals, cities too can forget that success is hard won and easily lost. A decade ago, Bangalore fancied itself as a leading centre of entrepreneurial innovation. It gloried in the title of ‘India’s Silicon Valley’. Its moderate climate, cosmopolitan culture, and cluster of research laboratories would, it was thought, allow it to further pull away from the rest of India. In fact, the reverse happened. The lack of attention to infrastructure, the short-sighted-ness of local politicians, and a leadership crisis in major Bangalore companies encouraged new investment to move to other cities instead.

Cities considered prosperous and progressive can stall or fall backwards. So also states. Kerala was once a byword for secular tolerance and gender equality. In recent years, however, there have been incidents of communal violence—and, more disturbingly, a rise in attacks on women. A survey of eight states found that women felt most unsafe in Kerala.

What I have called the singular lesson of history applies forcefully to countries as well. Adolf Hitler spoke famously of building a ‘Thousand Year Reich’. The British, meanwhile, expressed their bombast in stone rather than words. Those who constructed the Viceregal Palace, the North and South Blocks, and the Central Vista beyond, certainly expected to stay on for several hundred years at least. In the event, New Delhi as a British imperial city had only a slightly longer tenure than the Nazis.

History teaches us that for individual or organization, company or country, pre-eminence is never permanent. Therefore, a study of history should caution one against hubris. Although I admired Tendulkar, because I knew there had been great batsmen before him, I knew that there would be great batsmen after him too. As a student of the rise and fall of cities I was not entirely surprised when Hyderabad or Chennai or Delhi became more interesting places to live in than Bangalore. And it was because I knew how fleeting has been the global supremacy of other nations that I was, from the first, so sceptical of India’s superpower pretensions.

The uses of history are educative rather than instrumental. By writing in rich detail about other peoples and past times, historians can expose their fellow citizens to a wider range of human social experience. This may make them more self-critical, less xenophobic. A deeper knowledge of how others have lived and laboured—or failed and succeeded—allows one to be more fully aware of the contingencies and peculiarities of one’s own life. Studying history can help one become more humble, but not necessarily more wise.

THE ONLY LESSON THAT HISTORY CAN TEACH US
by Ramachandra Guha
(published in the Hindustan Times, 2nd August 2015)

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