Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Looking back for the way forward

Tuesday November 2, 2010

Looking back for the way forward

Senior Fellow/Director,
Centre for Science and Environment Studies

The here-and-now emphasis by the present generation makes it difficult to convince many of our youth that not only is history not obsolete, it can also be a guide to our future.
ABOUT a week ago, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announced at the Umno general assembly that History would be made a must-pass SPM subject in 2013 and that it would also be a core subject in primary school starting 2014.
It is clear that such a move is primarily aimed at the younger generation of this country.
In fact, more than four years ago, when opening the Prime Struggles Towards Independence exhibition at the Tun Razak Memorial in Kuala Lumpur, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Abdul Razak – then the Deputy Prime Minister – while ticking off the young post-independence generation who were not appreciative of the country’s history, reiterated the long-held wisdom that through history, good things could be made examples and emulated, and past mistakes could be avoided.
Will Durant once remarked in an almost similar vein: “The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding.”
No doubt, history is about right human memory and recollection – a collective one in the case of a nation or a country – and as memory and recollection is necessary for progress in reflection and thinking, undermining or ignoring history will adversely affect our way forward.
Yet, we cannot avoid wondering whether such a lamentable state of not being appreciative of our country’s history is limited only to our youth. Is it not found among their parents and elders as well?
We may even question whether such a deplorable state concerns only our country’s history. What about history itself?
I, for one, am of the opinion that it does involve the latter. In fact, I am not being presumptuous in saying that insofar as history is concerned, the people of today are now approaching a state of neglecting history and, in many instances, of even abhorring it.
We cannot easily deny the fact that this is partly caused by the way history has been depicted, understood and taught in this country.
Indeed, too often has history been considered pedantic, as a mere enumeration of the sequence of past dates and events, and one is almost always at a loss to see any meaningful relation and pattern; in other words, being unable to see the wood for the trees.
The most important thing we should ask ourselves, if ever we are serious in addressing the problem of historical negligence, is the question: what actually brought this on and how did this happen in the first place?
I think the clue lies in what we may loosely regard as the mental orientation and collective consciousness of our people at large.
It has been commonplace to find that, in general, people want to be seen as being current and contemporary.
For the most part, one’s being current and contemporary is viewed by some as being synonymous with one’s being able to live right “here” and “now”.
This drive to be current and contemporary, in turn, is generally due to the survival instinct, for one to stay relevant lest one runs the risk of being outmoded and a “dinosaur”.
This overriding emphasis on the present is also closely associated with the stiff competition in the job market and in business.
But the problem is, not only does this drive and emphasis render what is neither “here” nor “now” in the sense of “history” irrelevant, it also makes what is neither “here” nor “now” in the sense of “the future” secondary, if not just as irrelevant.
In other words, we find it difficult to convince many of our youth that not only is history not obsolete, but also that they must be prudent with respect to their future and, as such, to not jeopardise their whole life simply for the momentary pleasure that they seek in the guise of the “here and now”.
In fact, it is as difficult today to convince our youth about such truths as it is to persuade our very selves of exactly the same truths, both conceptually and practically.
Have we allowed this to happen systematically through our education system and other media, such that the minds of our youth – in fact even of ourselves – are becoming solely focused on the “here and now”?
Have we not realised of late that the institutions of higher learning in this country have been frequently urged to continually review their roles and curricula by taking into account the changing environment in which the Government and business have to operate?
In this very process of rendering ourselves up-to-date, we usually find that not only does history, as a discipline of study of reflexive nature, find it really hard to establish itself as a department in many higher learning institutions in this country – particularly the new ones – and then to continue surviving therein.
Also, many subjects that are historically oriented, which are supposed to be sub-branches of many other disciplines of study, such as “The History of Science” and “The History of Economic Thought”, always find themselves being dogged for continual justification for their raison d’etre.
To be realistic, we cannot avoid living in the “here and now”.
What is most problematic, and in fact destructive, however, is our obsession with the “here and now” and the attendant neglect of the “there and before” as well as the “there and after”.
In fact, it is this obsession and single-minded preoccupation with the “here and now” which accounts for what Prof Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas has aptly termed as “secularisation” and “secularism” in his now classic Islam and Secularism.
As Muslims, it is not the “here and now” that is the problem. On the contrary, it is a matter of fact, but it is our mental state and life obsession with it which is the hard nut to crack.
Unless significant, serious and systematic steps are taken to overcome such obsession, both at the individual and societal levels, our hope to see real appreciation of our history by our youth will remain a fancy!


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