Why history should give you insomnia

18 Mar 2018 |

How do we prepare young people for the world of 2030 and beyond? That is the question being posed by the Global Education & Skills Forum 2018 as teachers, policymakers and education leaders gather in Dubai.

And the answer, according to the renowned history professor Simon Schama, is to look backwards rather than forwards, taking the time to understand the world through the lens of history.

“It is the understanding of the past that I believe to be the vital enabler of a humane future,” says Prof Schama.

“There is supreme value in the recollection of truth,” he says, “It’s not to meant to lull you to sleep – it’s meant to give you insomnia.”

GESF Simon Sc Speaker Quote Card

The lessons of modern-day conflict

There are certainly enough worries in the world to keep presidents awake at night, nevermind mere citizens.

North Korea has been flexing its muscles and demonstrating its nuclear capabilities. When President Trump of the US meets the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, he may do well to remember that there are many structural similarities between the pre-1914 period in Europe and the current conflict in Asia, according to Andreas Herberg-Rothe from Fulda University.

And an understanding of many other modern-day conflicts can be gained by taking a very long-view of the historical tensions between different regions, cultures, religions and ethnicities. These include the civil war in Syria, the disputed territory of Gaza, the extreme violence in the newly created state of South Sudan and the fleeing of the Rohingya people from Myanmar, to name but a few.  

Meanwhile many philosophers and classicists say the roots of modern-day problems such as protectionism and mass migration can be traced all the way back to ancient times.

The pitfalls of technology

Professor Schama’s decision to stress the importance of history to the Forum comes partly from his worries about the rise of populism.

History should not provide simple messages or quick, knee-jerk reactions. It instead provides thoughtful analysis and depth, he says, stressing that history is about pluralism and the understanding of others, and a rejection of triumphalism.

“History is above all reflective,” he says. “History is the enemy of the tribal yell,” adding that to practise history is to abandon cheerleading for a particular cause.

And even technology and the internet did not escape his wrath, as he warned about its power to spread conspiracy theories and myths that detract from rather than add to the sum knowledge of history.

Even when it came to addressing AI, a subject usually associated with rapid change and transformation, Professor Schama chose to look back rather than forward.

Many teachers realise that today’s children will need an entirely different set of skills to those that have historically been converted into the skills needed in the workplace.  

But, rather than focusing on what needs to change, he  talked about what AI cannot supply: “Long-distance memory, the capacity to stand back and see what the world has wrought.”

Learning from the past

History, as the saying, goes, has a tendency to repeat itself.

And that is why teachers – and the lessons from history – are so incredibly important.

But if history is not taught, humanity doesn’t even stand a chance of being able to learn its lessons and at least try not to fall into some of the same pitfalls all over again.

And perhaps that is why Professor Simon Schama calls the inequality of access to education one of the greatest scourges of our time.

Now in its sixth year, the Global Education & Skills Forum welcomes global leaders and education practitioners to solve education, employment and equity for all. Follow us onFacebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Opening_Plenary_Simon_Schama_GESF2018_SD49517