By Dr Philip Afaha
History has it that the colonial authority was not too enthusiastic about education of her Nigerian colonies. Through a series of manipulations involving refusal of financial assistance or denial of approval to open a new school, the colonial administration ensured that education was provided in such a dosage that it would not bring about the end of colonialism. It was in response to this scenario that the catholic mission, alongside other Christian missions, embarked on establishment of schools to fill the vacuum created by the British colonial policy on education.
So when a catholic institution like the Veritas Catholic University came on board about a decade ago, there was a strong expectation that it will be a flagship of a non-governmental university in Nigeria.
The greatest challenge of any history teacher is not teaching history itself but in articulating its relevance. It is in explaining its importance and convincing an audience or students who are struggling to situate themselves in an old story that occurred long before they were born that is the real meat of history as a branch of knowledge.
The question as to what makes history relevant in the 21st century is akin to one staring at a mirror and asking himself his own name. When I was a university student, I struggled to come to terms as to why I was offering History as a major. I would have loved to read law, accountancy, engineering or any other courses that promised instant job in the oil companies of the 90s but I was stuck with History. I entertained queries after queries of “what will you do with History?”. I endured the sarcasms of my friends and relations over my choice of discipline throughout my university days.
If you have experience such trauma ever since you arrived at this university, I have good news for you; enduring sarcasms is a first ritual of becoming a historian, and it is that which will provoke the best in you after your studies. By the time I returned from my national service I became one of the few to land a dream job with UACN, then the biggest conglomerate in Africa. I have landed several other jobs ever since because I posses a rare skill – the skill of a historian. I tell this story because I suspect that the thrust of my presentation, History: A Search For Relevance In The 21st Century, may have been provoked by the kind of inner trauma I called the ritual of becoming a historian.
However, when you are able to walk through those psychological bashings, you become mentally toughened to be the best and dominate your intellectual space. You probe with pride, analyze and exercise command over logic and letters, and you become a respected member of the human society, you become their voice – that`s the audacity of history.
A history degree doesn’t narrow your opportunities after graduation. Instead, the history major opens a world of possibilities for your future. Federal government data show the variety of exciting career paths you can penetrate with your degree in history; currently we have the Chief of Army Staff, the Comptroller General of Immigration, a Director of the Central Bank in Nigeria, a Deputy Inspector General of Police, the Comptroller of Prison Services, top diplomats and bureaucrats, prominent legislators, school administrators, and most recently the Director General of NYSC who possess the same history certificates you are here to pursue. There are numerous history graduates plying their trade in banks, international organizations, the media, multinational firms and in private businesses.
With their hindsight of the past and capacity for critical thinking, historians are making waves all over the world and employers are increasingly searching for those who are trained to understand trends, who can reconstruct thoughts, who can relate current scenario with the past, and who can adequately capture in writing their daily experiences. The closest illustration of this fact is when you walk in to any bank in Abuja, you observe that majority of the workforce neither read banking nor accounting. A history graduate is far ahead of others both in cognitive ability and analyzing capacity. The very discipline of history and study of history activates the hippocampus – the brain compartment responsible for processing memory and intelligence.
Before we delve into its relevance, I will pretend you have forgotten the definition of history and as expected of every teacher, I will scramble a reminder here. History is the art and science of memory and memory is the wine of human knowledge. It facilitates memory and teaches people to remember, and to think critically. We believe that history is central to knowledge as nothing is worth knowing if it cannot be remembered. History prides itself as the fulcrum on which basic knowledge evolves, and as the sayings go “History is about everything and everything is about history; “History orientates man, locates him in time and space” it asks questions about things done by man in time and space; it is rational, provides answers based on evidence and links the past with the present and the future.
The most common definition of history and perhaps the one loved most by students is E H Carr submission that history is a continuous dialogue between the historian and his facts,… and between the present and the past. Mankind must therefore confront and accept the past in order to create a present and a future for itself.
The centrality of history in practical life cannot be overdramatized, as “All Knowledge is history”. That explains the study of history of everything, including man`s search for God. We cannot completely know God without history; every religion is anchored on history and faith. That is why the Holy Bible begins with Genesis- which is the history of creation and the relationship between God and man. Thus we have History of Religion, History of Science and Technology, Constitutional History; History of Volcanic eruptions and other human disasters; History of ideas, History of Philosophy and, of course, History of History.
History is society`s collective memory, but sometimes, as Wole Soyinka puts it while criticizing those who expunged history from Nigerian school curriculum; “history is a burden and that is why most people avoid it”. To Soyinka, the successive Nigerian leaders would not accommodate the revealing nature of history due to their despicable conducts while in power. He quipped angrily that “those who expunged such a discipline from our school should be expunged from history altogether.” (I disagree with the distinguished laureate here. History doesn’t discriminate). Nevertheless, such angst appear to rhyme with that of American philosopher George Santayana who submitted that “a country without memory is a country of madmen”.
However, it must be admitted that history has its limitations. It doesn’t offer a utopia for knowledge as some people would believe. The paramount limitation of history becomes clearer when the very processes of historical reconstruction is appraised. Indeed, the historians’ task is as daunting as a puzzle.
Unlike the scientist who can experiment directly with tangible objects, the historian is most times removed from the events under his investigation, and his facts are as contained in surviving records, and a large chunk of events were not recorded at all, and most records are either inaccessible or have been destroyed. Indeed, Gottschalk aptly summarized this lacuna when he remarked; “Only a part of what was observed in the past was remembered by those who observed it; only a part of what was remembered was recorded; only a part of what was recorded has survived; only a part of what has survived has come to the historian`s attention; only a part of what has come to their attention is credible; only a part of what is credible has been grasped; and only a part of what has been grasped can be expounded or narrated by the historian…..Before the past is set forth by the historian, it is likely to have gone through eight separate steps at each of which some of it has been lost; and there is no guarantee that what remains is the most important, the largest, the most valuable, the most representative, or the most enduring part.”
Apart from the above shortcoming, the historian himself is a factor in the equation. Not only is the historian fallible and capable of error, but personal biases, political beliefs, economic status, religious persuasion, and idiosyncrasies can subtly and unconsciously influence the way historical sources are interpreted.
Nevertheless, we don’t have to know much history to recognize that truly horrible events occurred in the past; we must therefore assume that there will be more horrors in the future unless we develop ways to prevent them. Studying past horrors is perhaps the first step towards preventing future recurrences, because we can begin searching for effective means of prevention and mitigation. History offers us much encouragement in thinking that serious efforts to safeguard the future world from nightmares can be very worthwhile even if not a hundred percent effective. If we cannot completely prevent a disaster, perhaps we can deploy our lessons of history to reduce its likelihood and also the pain it causes.
History is change, or a study of changes. It is a significant change in the related interconnectedness of the past, present and future. However, change in history is not only in magnitude e.g. wars, depression, and drought, but also in the weight of influence on the future. Thus if we agree that the future is a product of change(s), then it follows that history, the study of changes, is relevant to the 21st century.
Now permit me to tell a little familiar story before I go into the relevance of history in the 21st century. We enjoy history more when it is cast as stories. One of the fallouts of the 2019 general elections that have caught the nation gasping has been the debate of who a Nigerian citizen is. There are stories of a man from Sudan which has served an excellent comic relief all over the social media. Another, and indeed the ones that has found its way to the elections tribunal is the counter-petitions over Mohammadu Buhari’s school certificate and Atiku Abubakar’s claim to being a Nigerian citizen.
The petitions question the duo’s eligibility to contest for the office of the president as the electoral act stipulates the qualification for such office to include among other extremely simple and laughable things as citizenship by birth and a school testimonial. The twin saga has exposed Nigeria`s fault lines, which, like the incubus, has weighed down the country since the Europeans left. These fault lines manifested in the lost and found drama over Mr. president`s certificate which can be attributed to Nigeria`s poor records and data management on one hand, and the apparent ahistorical disposition of the 1999 constitution on the sensitive question of citizenship.
These fault lines could have been resolved if Nigeria paid attention to history. While history teaches us to safely keep and manage our records for future use, it also teaches us to always factor in the events of the past in maneuvering the present and the future.
The current hullaballoo reveals that the writers of the 1999 constitution were ignorant of the 1961 plebiscite in the British Cameroun that automatically conveys on people like Atiku Abubakar Nigerian citizens by birth. It is sad that the highest judges and policy makers in the land are drifting into history amnesia; they have to be reminded of legal precedence by the public.
When I was invited to speak on these issues by several media stations I had submitted for the umpteenth time that the nation is in dire need of her history if she is to swim through this murky period of her existence.
As a country we have been groping in the dark; we can’t power our homes and industries, we can’t provide water for our basic needs, we can’t construct roads to drive on, we can’t run an airline as a country, we can’t employ our graduates, we can’t count ourselves but depend on others for our population figures, we can’t defend, feed or even rule ourselves. This list of our shortcomings and weaknesses as a country is overwhelming and we can only get around these issues if we start asking ourselves where we got it wrong, and how we can leverage on history to reclaim our glorious past.
This realization puts pressure on the 21st century historians to do beyond research and writing, but to seek how to engage in shaping the present and the future. The days of docility are over. Historians can no longer sit back to reconstruct ancient history but to engage more in a dynamic world. This mindset, apart from the imperative to make the discipline of history more marketable in the dark era when history was jettisoned by the Nigerian government, was responsible for the change in nomenclature and curriculum in most universities in Nigeria. Thus you have History and international relations in Veritas University, and History and Diplomatic Studies in my University of Abuja. It must be noted that international relations or Diplomacy component are not new strands of history,(they have always been there), but the rebranding was geared to re-emphasize the relevance of the discipline of history to the Nigerian audience and in the international system.
The real world is experiencing torrents of rapidly changing events and historians can no longer afford to think outside or behind the theatre, but within it in order to fully understand the new system that is evolving. A fortnight ago we facilitated the visitation of the President of the UN General Assembly, Maria Fernandez Espinosa to my university. During the interactive session history students distinguished themselves with deep and penetrating questions to the astonishment of the diplomat.
A 300 level history student Brenda Etta, dazed the diplomat by demanding to know any global initiative to rescue the boy child especially in a country like Nigeria where, unlike the girl-child interventions, are most traumatized and degraded as almajiris, child soldiers, school drop-outs and street hawkers. It was admitted by the top diplomat that if not for anything, her observation has deepened the conversation on gender mainstreaming. That visit of the ranking world leader and her interaction with history students is a loud validation of the relevance of history.
Ranke and other positivist theorists argue that “the historian needs not only mere standard knowledge of how people do behave in different situation, but also a conception of how they ought to behave.”
Historians, in the 21st century must not only chronicle but are critical of societies in which they live; indeed, they are gadflies, questioning morality and ethical values of the people; they shake and bite them hard in order to electrify them from their moral decadence and slumber.
The 21st century historians, especially Nigerian historians must, and always, not only reconstruct but question the status quo for a greater and deeper understanding of existing conditions in order to attain a better tomorrow. For example, G.M. Trevelyan, the historian found that during one practical examination at Oxford University, a candidate was requested to answer just two questions: “What is the Hebrew for the place of skull” and “Who founded the University College?”.
On pronouncing ‘Golgotha’ and ‘King Alfred,’ he was declared a graduate of Hebrew and History. This criticism brought to the public domain the charade of exams at Oxford and Cambridge!, it was the strident voice of historians that brought about reforms in Cambridge and Oxford, and today, the two institutions are better off as sanctuaries of knowledge.
The 21st century is an increasingly fluid, interconnected, and complex world. Science and technology allows for 24/7 access to information (including histories), constant social interaction, and easily created and shared digital content. It is the century of fast internet and computers, massive data and globalization. The quantum of data available in the 21st century is overwhelming, and this leaves the craft of history with a herculean challenge of processing and objective interpretation. But how relevant is history and its study in this dynamic century?, the answer is simple; for us to really understand the fast changes we are seeing today and interpret them, we need to establish the interconnectivities between the receding past, the present and the rapidly emerging future. In both science and technology, every new invention or innovation is built on past inventions and theories, new developments are built on old ones, and new super structures are but improvements of the old ones. Apart from leveraging on memory to improve or upgrade human experiences, History gives us insight into what can happen in the future.
It can help us predict outcomes on current events, define our identities, give us a better understanding of different cultures, understand change, combat ignorance, open doors, and inform our work experiences.
There’s no occupation that doesn’t deploy history for its sophistication. No physician treats without a medical history, no jury passes judgment without a history of a case, no engineer or scientist sets to work without the spur of past theory or experiment, no responsible government (except those in Africa) initiates a policy or programme without first consulting her history or at least rely on the historical experiences of other countries. There`s no gainsaying the fact that most of the clatter and fury of the 21st century could be resolved if humankind listens to its history and if it is deployed to guide the conduct of governance. History is not only relevant in the 21st century; this century can’t survive without history. History is not just the fulcrum, indeed, there is no knowledge without history.
*Dr Philip Afaha is HOD, History And Diplomatic Studies, University Of Abuja.