Historic rewrite required

August 22, 1997

For Asians who have great respect for the past, it must be surprising to learn that the number of students taking history at schools and universities has been falling for the past three decades. In secondary schools, the reason given is that the subject is no longer compulsory.

At university level, fewer students choose history as a major because there are many more subjects to choose from, and many other subjects are either more interesting, or prepare graduates for better jobs. It is also claimed that history courses are so dull at school that students are put off the subject for good.

In any case, what use is the past anyway? And, in a rapidly changing world, why should anyone be concerned that the study of history is being neglected?

Given these doubts, it must also be interesting that, in several parts of Asia, there is some revival of late.

This has come about because there has been a rediscovery that the past can be very useful for the task of nation-building. There has been talk of reviewing history text-books, and even of making some history compulsory again in secondary schools.

But the fresh attention given to the study of history may have little to do with the respect for the past that has been thought to be an integral part of Asian tradition.

We might examine the phenomenon by questioning the nature of this respect. We are constantly told that Asians value tradition. Are their languages not replete with references to their glorious heritage?

Certainly Asian elites have long been successful in using their heritage to check any call for change of which they did not approve. However, for most Asian societies, respect for the past did not always lead to the habit of recording what happened and writing history from that data, least of all the scholarly study of history.

There are, of course, many different traditions in Asia about the study of the past. What has been clear from the beginning of this millennium is that East Asia, that is, the Confucianised parts of it, was different from the rest of Asia in the practical way their elites made use of history for political and bureaucratic ends.

Their kind of history included the compiling of detailed chronologies, political records, and monographs on all matters that helped the governance of empires and kingdoms.

Other traditions in Asia, however, did not always find record-keeping that useful for their rulers and governments. Their respect for the past tended to focus on moral lessons.

Also, there were at least two major divisions in attitudes. There was the Hindu-Buddhist world in which what passed for history consisted largely of didactic stories about the gods, about Buddha and Boddhisatvas, and these transmitted the traditions that were worthy of remembrance. Actual dates and causal explanations mattered far less than the moral lessons that one could learn from the past.

As for the Muslim world that spread across the Middle East to Southeast Asia, their scholars were more interested in events that had happened in history.

But they tended to concentrate on describing those events that advanced the cause of Islam, or had led to Islam being threatened. The past was only important insofar as it helped believers to improve their appreciation of the faith.

Then came the introduction of the modern study of history. This had come largely from the European university when transplanted to Asia. In such universities, history had grown out of classical learning, inspired by the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Caesar and Tacitus.

As a post-Enlightenment phenomenon, history was seen as something free from philosophy, literature, and theology, and eventually recognised as an independent academic subject located somewhere between the humanities and the newly evolving social sciences.

By the 20th century, historians had become less confident and divided into two major camps. There were those who spoke of historical science as a branch of the social sciences. And there were those who believed that the writing of history was best done as a kind of narrative literature that was based on evidence and rational argument.

This modern university arrived in Asia when history was a strong and growing field with powerful antecedents and a considerable potential as a useful academic subject.

The institution was established largely in two ways.

In most cases, it was transplanted by colonial powers as in India and the Philippines, where many of the senior administrators had studied history and could demonstrate how useful it was. There, the subject was brought in the main to people who had no strong tradition of writing history.

In countries that had not been colonised, as in Japan and China, it was admiringly and voluntarily copied from Western Europe and the United States.

In East Asia, where its own tradition of classical learning included a strong emphasis on the practical use of the past, the study of history was quickly accepted as something modern that had helped western elites to make their countries powerful and superior.

Thus history in this region gained a new credibility. To study history was recognised as having educational, and therefore employment, value.

But for most former colonies, the study of history seems to have had shallow roots. When the postcolonial governments of new nation-states want graduates to be better equipped to support industrialisation and rapid commercial development, the study of history was clearly irrelevant.

The best students emerging from school were actively discouraged, by political leaders and by their parents, from an interest in subjects which did not immediately benefit the country, or lead to well-paid careers.

The history of the premodern past was certainly an easy target. But even the study of the more recent past was not spared. Such events are too close for the new national elites to feel comfortable that these be subjects of intense study and open debate. They are, after all, issues the elites themselves still remember.

Also, most governments do not wish to be accused of manipulating and rewriting the past. It would surely be wiser to practice benign neglect. How important then is the renewed interest in the subject? How long will it last?

For those countries which had strong historical traditions, such appreciation should encourage the rise of a new breed of historians. But for those whose past is short, didactic and essentially timeless, it is probably too early for historians to cheer.

Wang Gungwu is director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.

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