Reading History

Mansur Qureshi

History has always had a bad press. It has been viewed with utmost suspicion most of the time. It has been suggested that history is almost always written by the conquerors who use it to blow their own trumpet. It has also been used to inculcate a national spirit in children but as Goethe rightly points out, "patriotism ruins history". I am told that the heroes of the Hunderd Years War between France and England are all French if you read the French school history text books: those very 'heroes' become the villains if you read the English school text books. And vice versa. Exactly the same applies to Indian and Pakistani textbooks regarding many issues including the events leading upto the partition of India and creation of Pakistan. Bill Vaughan wasn't joking when he said that "it might be a good idea if the various countries of the world would occasionally swap history books, just to see what other people are doing with the same set of facts."

The 'set of facts' doesn't remain the same in the hands of the historians though, as Samuel Butler pointed out: "God cannot alter the past; historians can." And this can have a devastating effect on whole generations, as was pointed out by K.K. Aziz in his wonderfully titled book "The Murder of History in Pakistan" which was first published by Vanguard Books in 1993. It's back cover summarised the state of official prescribed school text books as follows:

"In Pakistani schools and colleges what is being taught as History is really national mythology, and the subjects of Social Studies and Pakistan Studies are nothing but vehicles of political indoctrination. Our children don't learn History. They are ordered to read carefully selected collection of falsehoods, fairy tales and plain lies. Why and how has this come about? Who is responsible for it? In what ways is this destroying the country? Why doesn't anyone protest against it?"

Yes, Goethe was right when he said that "patriotism ruins history". Other great brains of the past have made quite scathing remarks about History too. Following is a small sample:

Ambrose Bierce: History, n. An account, mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.

Henry Ford: History is more or less bunk.

Voltaire: History consists of a series of accumulated imaginative inventions.

Karl Marx: History is nothing but the activity of men in persuit of their ends.

Thomas Carlyle: History, a distillation of rumour.

Ralph Waldo Emerson: All history becomes subjective; in other words there is properly no history, only biography.

Winston Churchill: History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.

Napoleon: History is a myth that men agree to believe.

Edward Gibbon: The voice of history is often little more than the organ of hatred or flattery.

Will & Ariel Durant: Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice.

So what message does it all have for an ordinary reader like me? It is this: read history carefully and with an open mind. What you are reading might be authentic History, or good guesswork, or maybe rank prejudice. Beware!
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