it’s all just a little bit of history repeating


this is an idea i have been turning over for some time in my head but will finally put out there since i am too exhausted to do any other work and or to care any longer if it makes sense (that said, it does seem that some seemingly smart people have suggested similar things – e.g. here and here and here – so i am hoping it is not such a crazy suggestion).

i should also preface this by saying that i read historical non-fiction for fun, found monuments men to be a page-turner, thought the ancient egypt exhibit at the field museum was probably the coolest thing ever — so thinking about making history exciting (not just in an indiana jones way) is, well, exciting. in addition, i’ve heard a few too many way-off statements of late, about what reagan did and did not do or how the germans bombed the US at pearl harbor…

i am beginning to think that history curricula – in high school, undergrad – should be taught backwards, from current affairs to the ancient past. in part, this is because in all the classes i took, we never reached the present day. american history usually got us to truman or eisenhower and then i’d sort of fill in the vietnam era from music, books and movies. in european history, we’d similarly make it to yalta and the beginning of decolonization and then we’d run out of time in the school year after spending a month on gandhi.

this leaves out an awful lot of pretty important stuff with immediate consequences for what’s going on in the world today. and while it is important to know about the cradle of civilization and the greek city-states… some of the stuff from the past 20 years is pretty important too — including important for being a national and global citizen. and, by being connected to current event, it seems more easily graspable than memorizing a line of kings starting from 1066.

it’s understandable that it is fundamentally easier to teach from the beginning onward — it makes chronological sense, it’s how most of the books already do it and it moves us from a point of less information to a point of overwhelming amounts of information involving ~193+ countries and wars around the world rather than the world wars. at which point in [enter present year] would one start? which part of the world or with which event? would these choices seem to reveal a political stance or ideological preference?

these are though questions. but, i’d like to see more people give it a try, peeling back from a key event to its antecedents, to discover how we got to where we are now. in so doing, it may be that history ‘matters’ more and can better sustain student attention and also that concepts like the counterfactual could be taught in a way that the inevitable passage of events in the right direction would not allow by forcing questions about the causes-of-effects rather than the effects-of-causes. moreover, this approach may better make the point of the political-ness of the telling of history – it is not just a march of facts but selected facts or near-facts or things-that-sound-like-they-could-be-facts selected by particular people at particular points in time.  this, too, is an important lesson.


question: why do well-educated people from sub-Saharan Africa often seem not to have taken any courses in African history?

i admit that i am working from an n of 2, purposively selected from Ghana and Nigeria. nevertheless, it seems worth asking, how is national history *not* part of the standard middle or high school curriculum, insofar as knowing history is an important part of educating citizens?


corn as small things: all maize is corn but not all corn is maize?

i think i just made a minor life breakthrough. i am working on re-reading ‘salt‘ – at least i thought i was re-reading it but it doesn’t seem as familiar as it should, so maybe i am just reading it.

over the past several years, a troubling thing would sometimes happen. i would go to a museum in europe (like the digs under geneva) or read a food history* and the author would mention ‘corn’ at a time that should have significantly pre-dated european contact with north america, and therefore, mention of maize in the ‘old world.’ i found this deeply confusing. sometimes i thought the author would go on to reveal that vikings or the basque had actually brought maize back from their early voyages and really rock my world.

but the authors were always silent and my brain would hurt.

however, mr. kurlansky tells me, “it was the 17th-century English who gave corned beef its name – corn being any kind of small bits, in this case, salt crystals.’

corn seems to just be a synonym for small things and sometimes used as a generic word for grain (e.g., which suggests it was the term for the most common grain in the region).

is this just my american english (or just my modern english) failing me?

*i really enjoy these commodity-specific histories – spice** and tea*** and all the rest. i know it is trendy but i hope it is a lasting one; it lets a history span geographic space and time frame without being too overwhelming.

**i first read spice around the time i was really digging into orientalism; nice pairing. not a very difficult one to figure out, either, but thought i would mention it!

*** i just found several additional tea histories while looking up that link. hooray! recommendations always welcome.

order, power, and the importance of history – hitler in india

here’s a topic i‘ve discussed in passing for the past five years and now i suppose it is time to write on it. this article just came out, covering, roughly, hitler, gandhi, and bal thackarey in indian political discussion. i am not entirely certain of article’s claims on the extent to which admiration of hitler and dissatisfaction with gandhi are part of the same conversation. or, how much of either can be attributed to thackerey. but i have certainly witnessed both the admiration and the dissatisfaction bits. i defer to maximum city on thackerey. i leave the consideration of gandhi and the birth-rupture of the indian nation-state for others.

when i first moved to chennai, i was fairly surprised to see copies of mein kampf available for sale on the streets. this sight, in turn, heightened my surprise when speaking with even well-educated indians who had never heard of judiasm (by the way, trying to use ‘you know how buddha was a hindu…’ doesn’t quite work to explain the old testament and jesus).

this ‘what are jews?’ point is disturbing for two at least two reasons.

first, india is home to several important and old jewish communities, including in kerala and in bombay (the latter were not missed by the perpetrators of the 26 November attacks in bombay). in one of my favorite books, (indian) author amitav ghosh feels a connection with an indian slave of a jewish businessman in in an antique land, placing jews in this historical context of ancient trading between india and the mediterranean. judiasm is a part of indian history and people not knowing it points to a deeper problem in awareness about ‘others’ and even ‘self.’

second, further, this point suggests large omissions in the global history taught in schools and popularly known. actually, not just global history, but indian history as well, since subhas chandra bose reached out to, and was rebuffed by, hitler to help with independence from the british. for all of hitler’s mis/use of aryan mythology, he didn’t actually seem to think all that highly of the people of the subcontinent. one might think that sort of insult would stick.

(third, the experimentation under the nazis is a key driver of research ethics today, which is yet another avenue to learn about some of the horrors in the holocaust.)

overlooking a relatively small religious group isn’t the only aberration i’ve found – also, not having heard of poland or proclaiming that south indians are the darkest-skinned people on earth or proclaiming complete ignorance (and lack of curiousity) about the beliefs of one’s muslim next-door neighbors. again, among people with master’s degrees.

to be honest, i was surprised that the students mentioned by dilip d’souza knew hitler had committed mass, systematic murder. in my experience talking with (some! only some!)  folks in india, many admire hitler and stalin (even naming children after them) in a way completely devoid of context. as far as i can tell, they see power, authority, oratory, and the ability to impose order without knowing anything of the whole ‘invading poland’ and ‘final solution’ bits. which is precisely what makes it all alarming.

it seems to be part of a craving for order and power that makes people name children after stalin, admire hitler, and proclaim that things would be better if india were more like singapore. a problem with this is that these longings seem divorced from history and context as evidenced, in part, by never having heard of ‘jews.’ it’s kind of hard to imagine what sort of instruction could teach about hitler without mentioning jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and so on. (yes, i know that sexuality and homosexuality in india are whole other cans of worms.)

of course, trying to cross the street in india – and seeing the messiness and corruption of democracy everywhere – everyone has an occasional longing for someone to impose order. the impulse for a philosopher-king, or a benevolent dictator, or someone to nicely just make decisions and get things done have been popular in the past and even now. but, as churchill said, democracy is still the best thing going given the options. sen has certainly commented on the non-need of strong-arm values to bring about development in asia and elsewhere.

democracy relies on having informed citizens – a civil civil society (e.g. here and one of my favorite diatribes, toward the end, here). has done since rome. will always do. this suggests we all have a resposibility in being informed and helping to inform.

in india, in the US, in a lot of places, we need to do better with our history, current affairs, and civics lessons. incomplete histories are dangerous things. it is not just those who don’t learn their history that are condemned to repeat it but also those who half-learn their history.

history is full of imperfect people that can teach us both how we should do things and how not to do things. we should know about both sides of past leaders. in the US ,we may largely equate hitler with evil and the fight against him as the last war we so clearly had a moral obligation to fight. anne frank is more or less required reading and we’ve seen cabaret or life is beautiful (the latter i had to watch before heading off to undergrad). this can make it all the more alarming when we hear people praise hitler or the nazi movement more generally.

some of the horrors of nazi germany may not seem so singular to those in colonies more recently gaining their independence. with good reason, and as we all should, people in india and elswhere learn and feel that the brits and americans have been plenty destructive in their own ways. this is certainly true. but hitler is a long way past imperfect and destructive. anyone looking to praise his oratory and authority needs to be fully cognizant of that.

(small addendum, 19 july 2013:

(19 feb 2014: from @urmy_shukla: as she notes, strangely written but gets at the odd trend, which was yet again a topic of conversation following someone pulling out a swastik-ed bandana this weekend at ragasthan.)