History cannot be learned

2020, Jul 30    

History cannot be taught or learned. It’s felt and lived.

I was at the burial site of a Mughal king. Once in Lahore. Once in Delhi. Once in Agra.

I was at the ruins of a millenia-old empire in Tamil Nadu.

I went to see castles in Ukraine built to ward off invaders whose names we do not even remember.

I rode camels in Mongolia that would occasionally slip and crush a bone lying there from ages long past.

I’ve read 100+ books about history. I listened to several podcasts, each with riveting personal details about the lives of people who lived a long time ago. I learned innumerable interesting facts, laid out scenarios in my mind of intrigue between palace guards and royals, the games of power people play. The sound of the crunch as my camel stepped on a sheep skull changed a lot of that for me. I felt connected to the roll of history much more clearly. I too was part of the tumble.

We are tempted to view history as something dead, but this is wrong. History is alive, and it is in us, it is taught to us in a way that imbues the present day with meaning.

I became very irate with someone in our group for attempting to scratch a gem off of the tomb in Lahore. This was all that was left of millions of people laboring, paying their taxes and tithes. All of them believing in something greater than themselves. It was a reminder that things could be different. Not better mind you, but different. It is a reminder of the time when things that are separate now used to be one, and the product and beauty that can come of such a union.

I cannot imagine that there are very many other things that can do the same thing.

Yuval Noah Harari was once asked why he studied history: not as a cautionary tale. He studied history because it tells us the world doesn’t have to be as it is. Reading history is sort of like opening Pandora’s Box - horrors stream out one after another. Fratricide, matricide, patricide, genocide. Underneath all the stories of indifferent or malicious killing though there is always hope. Even the most vile of villains in human history have something fundamentally human in them, the striving desire to make something where there was nothing before.

In this way, my final reading of history is something like traffic. You are not in traffic, you are traffic. You are not in history, you are it. You are here because of decisions made by powerful people a long time ago. You are here because a storm missed a house a few centuries ago. You are here because history tumbled onto just the right set of particles to make you you. You cannot learn about all of these things. You cannot learn what you already are.