Lounging atop his mushroom throne, the hookah-puffing caterpillar asked, “Who are you?” Alice began her timid response with, “I-I hardly know, sir…”
Alice’s crisis of identity as she tried to navigate the phantasmagorical Wonderland is similar to what awaits those of us who forget where we’ve come from; that is, those of us who don’t know our history.
The significance of the need and search for identity in the human experience cannot be downplayed. Whether we acknowledge it consciously or not, we all understand that it is a necessary aspect of our lives. I was once told that you can’t know who you are if you don’t know where you came from, and this emphasizes the point. On the scale of the individual to the national, we must interrogate our past to know who and where we came from.
The engineers of culture and civilization never take this for granted because a shared identity is a prerequisite for a nation’s existence.
As a sinister example of how well this is understood, the world’s ethnic cleansers who want to rid their territory of a group of people demonstrate their understanding of the necessity of history to identity. The destruction of a people, or the attempt of it, often begins without taking lives. Instead this starts with destroying their history, taking away their language, erasing the sources of their identity. Turkey attempted this by outlawing the language of its subjugated Kurdish minority, as well as any recognition of their existence or anything distinctly Kurdish, such as their folk songs (considered to be Kurdish propaganda). The government even went as far as to label them “mountain Turks” and deny the existence of any ethnic minorities in Turkey.
On a more benign level, the source of common identity in history is why the subject is taught in public schools, and taught in a certain way. Though many pause at the idea of the government commissioning a certain curricula for the purpose of molding a collective perception and self-image, this should only be worrisome if history is taught dishonestly and to achieve immoral ends.
Any country you choose to inspect will have some history of egregious violations of human rights. For this reason there are always those who see a need to downplay the shameful parts of their country’s past. The fear is that to do otherwise might breed generations of unpatriotic citizens no longer held together by any common love of country. Such a fear seems to have played a role in the decision by Oklahoma Republicans in 2015 to cut funding for Advanced Placement U.S. History courses because, as they said, it emphasized the negative aspects of America and didn’t teach American exceptionalism.
In America at least, the better parts of our history are emphasized and often mythologized, and not until reaching high school do we begin learning the sordid and often bloody details of the country’s past. This shouldn’t receive pushback, however. History is the study of people and how they respond to change, and our great capacity for both good and evil is borne out in those responses. The past is violent, beautiful, intriguing, oppressive and hopeful all at the same time.
Moreover, without understanding the real history of one’s own nation, one cannot know what threads are woven together that have rendered the fabric of society as it currently exists. Further, without giving some emphasis to the manifestations of the worst parts of our nature, we will be helpless to miss the warning signs of their reemergence and repetition both domestically and abroad. But, treading the line between caution and “the sky is falling” hysteria, we need to be scrupulous before asserting just how closely some present-day issue contains analogous warnings from the past.
Never coming around exactly the same way twice, the worst atrocities do still recur with similar themes. Often attributed to Mark Twain, the old saying tells us that “history never repeats itself, but it does rhyme.” This ought to inspire a greater attention to detail and demonstrate the imperative of education. Civilization as we know it is on the line, and the citizens of the world are responsible for its maintenance.
A tangential benefit of this is necessary self-reflection. Easy though it is to pass judgement on others, to critique yourself and your country is difficult, for some impossible, until you’re placed in front of a mirror and forced to gaze at the reflection staring back at you. This is precisely what must happen and is often best done through literature, which is one of the most indispensable vessels for teaching history and conveying ideas. To this end, I can’t help thinking of books by great authors like Arundhati Roy and Toni Morrison, among an extensive but hardly exhaustive list of others.
To understand anything, from the Israeli-Palestinian crisis to the failure of Marxism to ever gain a strong foothold in the U.S., we look to history and the deeper we dig, the more we realize just how complex an explanation is often needed. This is another advantage of studying history; you gain an appreciation for complexity, a patience to understand that complexity as thoroughly as possible and a recognition that there rarely are simple answers to questions of human civilization. In fact, anyone who prefers simple answers to complex situations ought to be approached with a healthy skepticism and may well warrant your distrust.
Learning history is therefore multi-purposeful. The pursuit of it as a basis for understanding how we’ve arrived at the present should instill the virtues of patience, skepticism and complex analysis. Without it, we lack identity. With it, we also hold the tools to learn from the errors and successes of our forebears as we move forward toward a more perfect future.
Brandon Langston is a third-year student majoring in biology with a minor in history. ✉ BL882717@wcupa.edu.