All human cultures tell stories about the past, deeds of ancestors, heroes, gods, or animals. Songs sacred to particular peoples were chanted and memorized long before there was any writing with which to record them. Their truth was authenticated by the very fact of their continued repetition. History which can be considered as an account that purports to be true of events and ways of thinking and feeling in some part of the human past stems from this archetypal human narrative activity.
While sharing a common ancestry with myth, legend, epic poetry, and the novel, history has of course diverged from these forms. Its claim to truth is based in part on the fact that all the persons or events it describes really existed or occurred at some time in the past.
Historians can say nothing about these persons or events that cannot be supported, or at least suggested, by some kind of documentary evidence. Such evidence customarily takes the form of something written, such as a letter, a law, an administrative record, or the account of some previous historian.
In addition, historians sometimes create their own evidence by interviewing people.
In the 20th century, the scope of historical evidence was greatly expanded to include, inter alia, aerial photographs, clothes, motion pictures, and houses etc. Furthermore, all developed countries have their National Archives. This is in recognition of the simple fact that knowledge of the past is essential to society. What happens in the present, and what will happen in the future, is very much governed by what happened in the past. Without a thorough knowledge of past events and circumstances, we could not even attempt to grapple with these problems. Without knowledge of the past we would be without identity, we would be lost on an endless sea of time.
However, it is obvious that knowledge of the past has not brought easy solutions to problems in, say, Nigeria, Mali, Zimbabwe, Palestine or even other parts of the world. Notwithstanding the fact that history is paramount in any society and in fact a necessary ingredient for its growth, but many practical facts staring us at the face have shown that people learn from history that they do not learn from history. Thus, I would like to support and defend the assertion that ‘history teaches us that history teaches nothing’. But before delving into this argumentative cum intellectual excursus, I would like to clarify the term ‘History’ and ‘Why people study history’
2.0 WHAT IS HISTORY?
Etymologically, the term ‘history’ is from the Greek word ‘ἱστορία’ – historia, meaning “inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation”. It was still in this Greek sense that Francis Bacon used the term in the late 16th century, when he wrote about “Natural History”. For him, history is “the knowledge of objects determined by space and time”. History is the study of the past, specifically how it relates to humans. It is an umbrella term that relates to past events as well as the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about these events. Scholars who write about history are called historians whereas the events occurring prior to written record were considered prehistory. By “prehistory”, historians mean the recovery of knowledge of the past in an area where no written records exist, or where the writing of a culture is not understood. By studying painting, drawings, carvings, and other artefacts, some information can be recovered even in the absence of a written record. Since the 20th century, the study of prehistory is considered essential to avoid history’s implicit exclusion of certain civilizations, such as those of Sub-Saharan Africa and pre-Columbian America. In 1961, British historian E. H. Carr wrote; ‘the line of demarcation between prehistoric and historical times is crossed when people cease to live only in the present, and become consciously interested both in their past and in their future.
History begins with the handing down of tradition; and tradition means the carrying of the habits and lessons of the past into the future. Records of the past begin to be kept for the benefit of future generations’1 Herodotus of Halicarnassus (484 BC – 425 BC) has generally been acclaimed as the “father of history”. However, his contemporary Thucydides (460 BC – 400 BC) is credited with having first approached history with a well-developed historical method in his work ‘the History of the Peloponnesian War’. In his historical method, Thucydides emphasized chronology, a neutral point of view, and that the human world was the result of the actions of human beings. Greek historians also viewed history as cyclical, with events regularly recurring. Suffice to say that the word ‘history’ entered the English language in 1390 with the meaning of “relation of incidents or story”. Professor Richard J. Evans defines history as an academic discipline which uses a narrative to examine and analyse a sequence of past events, and objectively determine the patterns of cause and effect that determine them.
According to Professor Arthur Marwick in his article titled ‘The Fundamentals of History’, history is ‘the bodies of knowledge about the past produced by historians, together with everything that is involved in the production, communication of, and teaching about that knowledge’.3 In E. H. Carr’s ‘What Is History? Carr draws on sources from Nietzsche to Herodotus to argue for a more subtle definition of history as ‘an unending dialogue between the present and the past’.4 No wonder, Whitney says that history is facilitated by the formation of a ‘true discourse of past’5 through the production of narrative and analysis of past events relating to the human race. History is the analysis and interpretation of the human past that enables us to study continuity and change over time. It is an act of both investigation and imagination that seeks to explain how people have changed over time. Historians use all forms of evidence to examine, interpret, revisit, and reinterpret the past. These include not just written documents, but also oral communication and objects such as buildings, artefacts, photographs, and paintings.
Historians are trained in the methods of discovering and evaluating these sources, and the challenging task of making historical sense out of them, that is to say they are aesthetically disinterested in their approach to events. According to Encarta electronic dictionary, history is ‘a chronological account of past events, it is the branch of knowledge that records and analyses past events’6. More so, Encyclopaedia Britannica defines history as ‘the discipline that studies the chronological record of events (as affecting a nation or people), based on a critical examination of source materials and usually presenting an explanation of their causes’7. Understanding why historic events took place is important. To do this, historians often turn to geography. Weather patterns, the water supply, and the landscape of a place all affect the lives of the people who live there. For example, to explain why the ancient Egyptians developed a successful civilization, studying the geography of Egypt is essential. At this juncture, it is paramount to say that the writing of history, especially the writing of history based on the critical examination of sources, the selection of particular details from the authentic materials in those sources, and the synthesis of those details into a narrative that stands the test of critical examination is known as Historiography.
3.0 WHY THEN DO PEOPLE STUDY HISTORY?
From my own personal observation, it does occur to me that people explore the field of history for myriads of reasons which are: History is a means to understand the past and present. The different interpretations of the past allow us to see the present differently and therefore imagine and work towards the future. Through the study of history we can investigate and interpret why society developed as it has and determine what influences have affected the past and present and shape the future. It helps one to understand the immense complexity of our world and provides insights to help cope with the problems and possibilities of the present and future. History also provides a sense of identity to understand the collective past that has made us what we are today. The way in which people identify and interact with one another is by and large a consequence of history, which shapes and conditions individuals and societies whether they fully understand it or not, relationship between different ethnic groups in Nigeria can testify clearly to this.
History is also a bridge to other disciplines. In order to understand the other humanities and sciences one needs a historical overview. Writers, artists, scientists, politicians, philosophers etc. are all conditioned by the historical milieu in which they lived. Historical knowledge is a prerequisite for understanding the world in which we live. History is magister vitae, “teacher of life.” History prepares us to live more humanely in the present and to meet the challenges of the future because it provides us with understanding of the human condition. Despite these reasons why people study history, it becomes disheartening to see that these reasons do not readily translate into practice considering what is on ground in the world. Hence, one can say without any fear of equivocation or ambiguity that ‘history teaches us that history teaches nothing’. To explicate this standpoint further, I would like to delineate in a jiffy the essential factors to be considered in history, from there I would showcase why history teaches us that history teaches nothing.
3.1 ESSENTIAL FACTORS TO BE CONSIDERED WHY STUDYING HISTORY
These are; Persons, ( personal element ), Time element, Event, Place, Circumstance, People’s reaction or Effects, Post Reactions and the Lessons. It is from the standpoint of lessons meant to be learnt from history that I would defend the assertion that ‘history teaches us that history teaches nothing’.
4.0 HISTORY TEACHES US THAT HISTORY TEACHES NOTHING: USING NIGERIA AS A CASE STUDY. Having explained the concept of history and why we study history, the problems that stare us at face are; how has the knowledge of the past positively influenced the present day society? To what extent is the history affecting the lives of people? Why is it that people, nations, continents etc. repeat the same mistake of the past? Does it mean that history has no positive influence on human development or that people have blatantly refused to learn from history? No wonder the prestigious German Philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in his lectures on the philosophy of history said; “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it… We learn from history that we do not learn from history… [Hence] History teaches that history teaches us nothing. If we go on to cast a look at the fate of the world historical personalities… we shall find it to have been no happy one.
They attained no calm enjoyment; their whole nature was labour and trouble; their whole nature was nothing but their master’s passion. When their object is attained they fall off like empty hulls from the kernel” To expatiate on this assertion that history teaches us that history teaches nothing, I would like to use Nigeria as a case study because I am more familiar with Nigerian history. Before delving into this intellectual discuss, I would like to posit certain questions: What is the percentage of Nigerians that are productively engaged? How many of them can pay their bills? Education is one factor that can lift the fortunes of a nation overnight: as it is today, what is the percentage of the population that attain school till tertiary institution? What percentage of the population can afford the fees for their education?
What has the government done to entrenched unity rather than ethnicity? Why has the government being unable to address these nagging issues? The most suitable answer to these interrogatives is that the government has failed to learn from history. In fact, the history of Nigeria has taught nothing to the government of this country considering what is on ground. The blame is mostly shifted to the government because as Achebe wrote in his book, ‘The Trouble with Nigeria’, the problem of Nigeria is that of leadership. Let me succinctly delineate and expatiate on this assertion that history teaches us that history teaches nothing with some major events that have taken place in Nigeria.
To be more precise, I hold the opinion that we have been stagnant in a lot of ways, we have degenerated in so many more ways while very little, if any progress, has been made in our march to meaningful nationhood. A key reason for our lacklustre performance at nation-building as Soyinka prescribes in the Dance of the Forest is the failure to draw lessons from the past at every turn in our history. That is an enterprise in which Nigeria still fails woefully.
Hear what I read in one of the National Dailies that Chief Obafemi Awolowo, one of the active participants in the move towards independence, said in a speech he delivered on the floor of the House of Representatives in Lagos on March 31, 1953; “…It has been customary for our friends from the North to threaten the rest of Nigeria with secession if this is done or if that is not done… We find the northern majority is not only being used (by the colonialists, I presume) in having their way, but it is also being used in preventing the minority from having their say…” Such was the suspicion and distrust that existed amongst major ethnic nationalities in the country at the attainment of independence. This suspicion eventually led to many coups like that of; 15th January 1966 Nigeria Major Kaduna Nzeogwu which led to the death of many including Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the then prime minister, 29th July 1966, a bloody coup led by Col. Yakubu Gowon, which claimed the life of Major General JTU Aguyi Ironsi and many others, 29th July 1975, by General Murtala Mohammed against General Yakubu Gowon and was successful, 13th February 1976, by Col. Dinka which resulted to the death of the then Head of State, General Murtala Mohammed, 31st December 1983, by Major General Ibrahim B. Buhari against Alhaji Shehu Shagari took place and was successful, 27th August 1985, by Major General Ibrahim B. Babangida against General Buhari. This suspicion also led to the civil war in which millions of lives were lost. Now, has Nigeria learnt anything from these? I think, NO.
This is because, fifty three years old, national integration is still abysmal in Nigeria. There are verbal missiles across the country by individuals who desire to promote the interest of their ethnic groups, all of them fanning the embers of strife and war. Ethnic militias exist in almost different parts of the country threatening the lives and existence of those who do not share their ethnic or religious pedigree. Many Nigerians especially Southerners have lost their lives due to Boko Haram insurgency. This was a kind of situation which made Ojukwu to declare the Republic of Biafra due the massacre of the Igbos in the North. This declaration later led to civil war. We have even seen the “deportation” of hapless Nigerians from one state to the other and the attendant emotional outbursts that followed it. In fact, Nigeria has failed woefully to learn from history because the lessons of history are never applied to better the life of her citizenry. At the moment, seven governors elected on the platform of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) are on do or die mission to get a politician of northern extraction into the office of president come 2015.
To them, it does not matter that the north had held that position for 37 out of Nigeria’s 53 years of independence, and that the region in particular and the nation in general, has nothing to show for it, all they are interested in is that the next President is from the North. To drive home the urgency of their desire, some of their supporters have actually threatened that Nigeria would be history if this pet project failed. Are these politicians unable to learn from history that born to rule mentality is a cankerworm that has threatened the fabrics of nationhood? Legendary writer, Chinua Achebe in his celebrated book, The Trouble with Nigeria once said: “But whereas tribalism might win enough votes to install a reactionary jingoist in a tribal ghetto, the cult of mediocrity will bring the wheels of modernisation grinding to a halt throughout the land” That is the state of affairs in Nigeria currently. It is as bad as for past and present leaders in the country to brazenly tell the world that Nigeria’s major challenge is the lack of honest and dedicated leadership even as none of them has the nobility to plead guilty of the charge. This plague of bad leadership accounts for the frustrating level of ineptitude that we have in all areas of our national life. It seems to me that a cloud of cluelessness has descended on Nigeria over the years.
Corruption in particular is one vice in which Nigeria has grown in leaps and bounds over the years. If there were pockets of corrupt practices in the country at the attainment of independence, Nigeria has within the last 53 years grown corruption to the extent that it has literarily acquired a life of its own. This has almost brought the nation to its knees with the resultant collapse of the middle class and the gap between the rich and the poor widening by the day. This means that Nigerian leaders in all sectors of life have failed to learn from history that corruptive practices retard the development of a nation and the excessive gap between the rich and poor can make the poor people to start a revolt against the rich.
More still, agriculture which was the mainstay of the country’s economy up until the end of the First Republic has taken the back burner no thanks to the seeming ease with which petro-dollars have come to us since the oil boom in the 1970s. As Nigeria’s oil prospect increased, political leaders found more money to siphon or launder even as they neglect to sustain the structures which made life meaningful for the citizenry. Today, life is almost unbearable for the average Nigerian. Nigerian leaders seem to forget that it was this kind of atmosphere that ushered in the French revolution. Nigeria has not learnt from history. Hence, from this exposition of Nigerian experience, I continue to maintain that history teaches us that history teaches nothing because people have failed to learn from the lessons of history.
5.0 EVALUATION AND CONCLUSION
Some may tend to argue that defending the idea that history teaches us that history teaches nothing is already affirming that history teaches something because being aware that history teaches nothing is already learning something from history. Remember, the premise of my argument is that history teaches us that history teaches nothing, put in another way; we learn from history that we do not learn from history. This points to the fact that people and nations have failed woefully to apply the lessons of history to promote human well-fare. Thus, Hegel is right when he maintained that we learn very little from history in a global sense. Therefore, history teaches us nothing if we fail to observe the past, ask appropriate questions and learn from the lessons of history.
1 Carr, Edward H. (1961). What is History? p.108
2 Evans, Richard J. “The Two Faces of E.H. Carr”. History In Focus. An article published by Palgrave, 2001.
3 Marwick, Arthur ‘The Nature of History’ The MacMillian Press LTD. pg. 169, 1970.
4 Professor Arthur Marwick in his article titled ‘The Fundamentals of History’ In E. H. Carr’s ‘What Is History?
5 Whitney, W. D. The Century dictionary; an encyclopaedic lexicon of English language. New York: The Century Co, 1889.
6 Encarta Microsoft Electronic Dictionary 2010 edition
7 Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011.
8 Hegel’s Lectures on Philosophy of History which was assessed online on the 3rd of November, 2013.
9 Achebe, Chinua. The Trouble with Nigeria, Enugu: Fourth
Dimension Publishing. Co. Ltd.Reprinted 1998. Print.