What use is history?: One reason to study the past

n intelligent engagement with the past is a critical component for a working public sphere. The totalitarian state is free to use its vision of history to impose its ideological orthodoxy, or alternatively, lacking any voice to the contrary, to erase the past as it sees fit. Last fall, I picked up Jasper Becker’s City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China. While not an overt, direct, confrontational assault on communist China, it offers a clear picture of history subverted to and wiped out by the state.

The back-cover blurb (“In the summer of 1997, without discussion or announcement, a decision was made to eradicate old Beijing…”) piqued my interest; its sentiment was further echoed in the introduction which describes the eviction of the old city’s populace. As the city was rebuilt, physical memories of earlier protests, such as Democracy Wall, were bulldozed: “the state only protected sites that served to bolster its own self-justifying version of history…[and] as they were destroying Beijing’s past, the authorities boasted of how they were spending US$ 800 million on preserving its traditional culture” (11-12). This was done by the creation of about 150 new museums that allowed the regime to present history when and how it wished.

Of course everything from the past cannot stand indefinitely. Societies need to make room for new realities. To put it another way, when I asked an English host once as to why British train stations are outside towns whereas French stations are often in the town center, he responded that the French were never hesitant about razing their past. Of course, some people would argue that twentieth-century Britain was a living museum with all its protected properties and spaces.

In Becker’s book then, it is not so surprising to read about the attempt to destroy Tibet’s cultural legacy during the 1950’s; less expected for me was a related consequence of trying to erase the past. Also during this period the state employed experts from the Cultural Relics Bureau to visit collectors and insist they donate their treasures to the state (at the same time, the state urged individuals to destroy all possessions from the old society). To raise cash, many of these artifacts were sold to Westerners, who noted that they only paid one-tenth of the market price because the sellers were so ignorant of what they were selling. In other words, there is in fact a market value for the past.

Striking, given how willing the present-day corporate university seems to be to jettison the study of anything old, anything that doesn’t directly contribute to its limited vision of the market economy, recognition of the relationship between informed understanding of the past and a healthy public sphere is nothing new. Tacitus begins the Histories (1st decade of the 100’s) with an explicit warning (from the Wellesley-Ash translation):

…many historians have related events of the preceding 820 years dating from the foundation of Rome. So long as republican history was their theme, they wrote with equal eloquence and independence. Yet after the battle of Actium had been fought and the interests of peace demanded that power should be concentrated in one man’s hands, this great line of historians came to an end. Truth, too, suffered in various ways, thanks first to an ignorance of politics, which now lay outside public control; later came a passion for flattery, or else a hatred of autocrats. Thus, among those who were hostile or subservient, neither extreme cared about posterity.

While admitting the necessity of Augustus’ consolidation of power for the sake of peace, the passage deplores the consequences for truth, the rise of ignorance and the loss of a role for the public in the workings of the state.

Of course, just because the single party state is able to co-opt history to its own ends, the opposite, that is that an engaged interest in the past engenders a vibrant public sphere, does not by that fact alone follow. But it’s not too much of a stretch to see how ignorance of the past (doesn’t so much condemn us to repeat the past, but rather) allows people to be seduced by facile representations of the past, that is ignorance allows a public to believe in a simplified vision that falsely equates a past figure or predicament with present situations (so-and-so is a new Hitler; this war is just like Vietnam). And so under the pretense of historical understanding and public debate, this ignorance begins to constrain and confine the very discourse it purports to uphold. Once this level of ignorance has been widely achieved, the door is open for a regime to subvert the past to its ideology.

This is a long way of saying that there are important justifications for education that fall outside the confines of job-training and market relevance. Of course, preparedness for employment and socialization play an integral role in education as well, but maintaining an informed citizenry, one that is something more than labor for capital is also crucial. If the market becomes the sole ideology, if consumption decides everything and the state does not allow room for dissent whether this condition arises by design or accident—most likely corporate design and political accident—won’t we wind up with a world consisting almost exclusively of porn providers, building developers, industrial food and last, the drone labor that serves their capital? Just wondering, ’cause as great as markets are, that doesn’t sound very fun.

Of course, there’s also this answer (from wiki.answers.com): “The use of history would be so that you can understand where people come from. What has happened in the past and understand that you are pretty much getting screwed over by the higher power people in the world.” Pretty much sums it up.

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