By Zoe Jannuzi
In Julian Barnes’s book The Sense of An Ending, there is a section where the narrator recalls a history lesson in which the students are asked to define history. The first student called upon responds that “History is the lies of the victors,” to which the professor responds, “Yes, I was rather afraid you’d say that. Well, as long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated.” The second student responds that “History is a raw onion sandwich.” When prompted to explain himself further, he says, “It just repeats, sir. It burps. We’ve seen it again and again this year. Same old story, same old oscillation between tyranny and rebellion, war and peace, prosperity and impoverishment.” Lastly, the third student, when asked, replies that “History is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” While I prefer the third definition, I think the three come together nicely to encompass the discipline of history.
This week in Qamar-al Huda’s session, we were asked to think about the field of peace education. Incorporating peace education in schools involves creating formal peace studies courses, integrating peace studies into other disciplines, and bringing informal peace practices into community life. A critical aspect of the peace curriculum is the focus on re-defining history. Instead of merely defining history by periods of violent conflict, we must widen the circle to bring in social change movements, arts, music, culture, invention, etc. This is difficult. But, before we even attempt to re-think the way we have written history, we must consider why teaching history matters.
“History is the lies of the victors” & “the self-delusions of the defeated.”
If we see history as a method for recording lies or self-delusions, the purpose of history is to build national/ community identity. Thus “changing” history would be changing national identity. Whether they have deluded themselves or lied to others, people are unlikely to want to re-frame history because they’d then have to reckon with a more plural past.
“History is a raw onion sandwich.” “It just repeats, sir. It burps. We’ve seen it again and again this year. Same old story, same old oscillation between tyranny and rebellion, war and peace, prosperity and impoverishment.”
If we see history as the study of cycles of human achievement/ failure, the purpose of history is to learn from mistakes. Re-framing the past may disturb what is seen as a victory, and what is seen as a failure. This again requires an interrogation of community values, identities, and culture.
“History is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
If we see history as an imperfect discipline, the purpose of history is not to provide objective fact, but rather to analyze the information we have, and determine what stories are left out. Re-thinking history in this way can be very uncomfortable for the majority group. The stories of those who have been systematically oppressed are often not as comprehensively recorded as the stories of the majority group or oppressor are.
Ultimately, I reject the idea that history can ever fully be encompassed, whether it includes our peaceful moments or not. To catalog objective truth is impossible. In fact, I believe there is no such thing. The imperfection of words impedes the conveyance of “objective truth.” Similarly, though objectivity is often thought of as devoid of emotion, history devoid of emotion fails to capture an essential aspect of the human experience. But… I do like the theory (and practice) of peace education. When you define history as the complete record of the human experience, peace education can’t widen the discipline of history enough to fulfill the definition. However, if you narrow your definition of history to one of the three in Barnes’ book, the subject of peace education begins to become useful.
If history serves to create a national identity, steps must be taken to encompass as many of the stories of the residents of that nation as possible. This necessitates telling the stories of inventors, artists, musicians, activists, non-violent leaders, pop culture figures, marginalized peoples, and many others not connected to the military or wartime apparatus.
If history is simply a way to learn from and reflect on past mistakes, you must be sure to record as many challenges as possible. Although learning from the mistakes we make in war is necessary, learning about the mistakes we make as societies in peace may be just as important, if not more.
If history will always be imperfect, we must learn how best to tell our collective story. History books must be diversified and analyzed for misinterpretations and/or flaws. Although our documentation will always be inadequate, we must learn to put aside as much personal bias as possible when documenting or analyzing history.
I believe we should institute a peace education curriculum, mainly as related to the study of history. There will be significant pushback, but this is no reason for keeping history as it is. Even disregarding the question of whether to integrate peace into the curriculum, I believe most would agree that current written history is severely lacking in diversity of perspective. The lessons we would learn, and the multiplicity of truths we would have to consider as a result of implementing a peace education curriculum, make it well worth it.