A case for reading history

28 August 2021

Hey everybody, I am here to make a case for reading history. No, I will not tell you why it’s important to know that the Battle of Plassey was fought in 1757. I am here to tell you why is it important to know why the British won the Battle of Plassey despite being outnumbered ten to one. I’ve used a defining moment from the British era of the history of the Indian subcontinent, but I am not going to talk more about that. My knowledge is pretty limited in that domain. I have used that for introduction only because I believe it is pretty suitable to throw us into a flashback of the history classroom from school. That is where this story begins, more or less.

My mother teaches social science to middle and high school kids. While growing up, we used to have a stock of textbooks from various publishers. I read a lot of it. It was not long ago that I had learned how to read myself. Hence, of course, I didn’t comprehend much myself. I would be simply scrolling pages and looking at pictures plenty of times. But my mother would explain bits to me. I remember my favourite. I remember learning about the history of human civilisation - Bronze Age, Iron Age, Neolithic Man, Paleolithic Man, Neanderthals, Homo Sapiens, Harappa, Mesopotamia, etc.

And then came the time when I had to study history as a subject in school. I was a middle school student now. My mother’s textbooks were as much a distant memory as they are now. These were a few gruelling years of learning who ruled where when. I went through the cycle of learning facts for my exams and forgetting them the next day. This did not change in secondary school, except a kind soul introduced a couple of social and cultural history chapters in our textbooks. I am talking about “Clothing: A Social History” in NCERT’s Class IX history textbook and “Print Culture and the Modern World” in NCERT’s Class X history textbook.

We would learn about the World Wars but in the context of how they impacted the clothes that we wear. We would learn about the impact of print on the French revolution and the role of newspapers in the Indian Freedom struggle. I loved it. This is history in its purest form. History is not an old photograph of your grandmother. History is the teapot that you adore as a showpiece in your house, and your grandmother can be seen drinking tea from it in the photograph. It is not a book with many pages. It is a book where someone has sewn threads across pages. It is not an instant in time but a thread through time.

Fast forward to college, while getting a degree in Engineering Physics, I would enjoy reading books on physics that would pull me back in time. During our course on Electrodynamics, I ventured to read Maxwell’s original treatise on the subject. I did not do as well in the course as I could have if I had focussed on my textbook and assignments instead. Well, I do computer science and finance at my job as of writing. Electrodynamics has not been as helpful to me as the lesson Maxwell’s book taught me. I mean, it was a book on the subject, but it did a terrible job of teaching the subject. If you’ve gone to school, you have learnt about vectors. Vectors are a fundamental necessity of physics. Classical physical quantities such as velocity and acceleration too are described using them. They are essential to studying Electrodynamics too. But Maxwell talked by assigning notation to each component of the vectors involved. There would be too much to unpack. He did not use vectors. How could he? Vectors were invented in their modern form by Gibbs and Heaviside in the late 19th-century after Maxwell wrote his groundbreaking treatise. Their work was, in part, targeted towards making an easier formulation of Maxwell’s work. Notation, and more generally, abstraction, is crucial to human intelligence.

Following suit, during our course on Relativity, I started reading a multi-volume work on the history of Relativity. The book built immense context around what was known to the scientific community in the years leading up to Einstein’s breakthrough. It also featured snippets from Einstein’s notebook and tried to reconstruct the thought process. There is no doubt that Einstein was brilliant, but we would have had the theory of Relativity without him as well. Breakthroughs in knowledge are built on a heap of related work. When you stand on the shoulder of giants, the giant is not a being but a composite structure made of mere humans. This is why it is common for independent groups to arrive at the same results around the same time. I will credit major thinkers to have effectively used the context and knowledge available in their discoveries. Only when I know the context behind a major discovery I can reconstruct the process of discovery and learn from it. Understanding this process is great admiration for the thinkers. Perhaps, it is greater than simply noting their work and being grateful for their contributions to humanity.

History connects ideas through time, just like mathematics connects ideas through space. Henri Poincare once quipped, “mathematics is the art of giving the same name to different things”. Well, in history, all that you see in current affairs has happened before. Of course, not literally. There is variety in each event, but each event could be broken down into events that led to it, and the path has patterns. Today, we see income inequality correlate with a rise in populism. Where have we seen that before? History is not about learning the past but about understanding the present.

My favourite branch of history is called microhistory. The definition is vague and has considerable overlaps with social and cultural history. The idea is to understand major events through the lens of relatively micro-entities. The entity can be an object, a concept, a technology or even a human being. Have you ever imagined WWII from the perspective of Adolf Hitler’s cook? The possibilities are limitless.