Thursday, April 09, 2009

Does History Matter?

I know of at least one leader who thought it does not. Chandrababu Naidu was the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh and focused greatly on industrialization and development of software industry. He thought history did not matter, said so, and wanted to stop teaching history in schools. He thought that pupils were better off focusing on science, maths and technology, rather than history, which talks about old times. He thought we were living on the threshold of a new era, at least for Andhra Pradesh, and it did not matter what happened in the past. He had a point.

Besides, there are other people, more sympathetic to past, who never regarded history as a true reflection of past. It was always about the victors' version of events; distorted by the powerful rather than the truth. On the other hand, science was the pursuit of truth, uncorrupted. If history was not true, studying it was indeed a waste of time.

Napoleon famously said history is that narration of past events which people have agreed on. But, then, there is rarely a country where there is clear agreement on the past events. In fact, there are many where history can not be written, because people have not yet reached the agreement. Take, for example, Bangladesh, where parties can not agree upon an acceptable history of liberation struggle; or India, where text books change every time the government changes; or Pakistan, where history is yet to start, or China, where it must have stopped midway, leaving big holes in time. If history gives us nothing, it looks too much of an effort to get it right too.

So, why bother? Especially when all it matters is doing well financially - earning money and creating wealth - and taking care of one's family. I am sure that's how most people in India think. Someone told me that she does not care about any history beyond that day's morning. Someone else told me that history is only for his parents, and they are born in an age where future is the only thing that matters. Great soundbites, and I can not tell whether they were quoting any popular writer, but I get the sense.

The problem is, however, history determines who we are. Not just our governments and public institutions, but us. However we proclaim objectivity, all our actions are invariably determined by a set of codes we tend to follow. In fact, two sets of codes - one individual, micro level set, which can roughly be labeled character; and the other, broader, macro level code, which is called Culture. Additional to these, there are social rules and behavioural norms, which guide us and determine what we do and what we think. Now, if you think about, all these four dimensions of our self are determined by history.

It is easy to understand how the collective dimensions, social rules and behavioural norms, are affected by history. Religion plays a large part, and also the social interactions over thousands of years determine what we perceive to be correct and acceptable. But history runs deep into the individual dimensions of ourselves too. Our character, the code of how we feel, is often a derivative of what we have seen our parents and grandparents, and our neighbours, and what we derived out of our collective dimensions. And, culture, the code of how we think and perceive, is determined deeply by history. I live at the fault lines of international business and almost always wondered why my essentially long term, patient attitude is always at odds with the immediate term, result oriented approach of my other colleagues: Until, of course, I found the key explanation in how the Indian paddy-farming cultures are essentially different in approach from the hunter-gatherer Irish/ Scottish culture.

Besides, I see the persistent failure of American administrations to resolve the Middle Eastern mess primarily arise out of their failure to understand the psychology of its people, deep rooted in history. The currently fashionable technocratic view of human affairs, be it inside an organization or regarding a nation, is essentially mistaken: human beings are so very affected by the four dimensions of their self that a neutral, technical set of rules almost never work. We have seen that in the policy failures of sophisticated states, as well as in misdirectedness of management action in organizations.

So, history counts. Even if its factual details may be preserved for study by the initiated, a broader sense of history is needed to manage or govern effectively. The recession is a great time to focus our minds on the value of history. So far, history books are selling thick and fast, and policy responses to the recession have been largely determined by a sense of history.

Chandrababu Naidu lost miserably in the Andhra Pradesh elections last time, and he may or may not get his seat back this time. However, if he does come back, one would hope he has learnt his lesson. He would not want to repeat the history again.

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