Updated: Apr 29, 2021
Finding out that the future begins in the past
The roots of human history in the place where we live is an anchor that ties us to the past and gives us a safe mooring from which to plan the future.
It is easy to see why, with the myriad options for entertainment available to us, learning about what has already happened can seem irrelevant and pointless; in a society now reliant on technology for work and play, and which is 'mobile' in all applications of the word, information is overwhelmingly absorbed from the written word, via websites, blogs, book-Reading apps, or in a few cases...paper! These media displace and limit the conduit for learning and entertainment that has been part of our existence for 99% of our human experience - oral transmission.
In the post-Covid-19 society, 'oral' sounds like something that should be covered by a mask. But for many millennia past, maybe even in the living memory of our oldest relatives, stories of family exploits from many decades ago were retold to younger generations, perhaps enhanced and refashioned in the process, and were the basis for passing on wisdom, moral norms and, of course, much entertainment. Confluence of such information created a sense of uniqueness to people's place in the family, in their relation to society, and the places where these stories happened.
To have a sense of the local history of where we walk, live and work, is to form a connection with our environment and invest some significance in the human-formed and natural landscape. It can make us feel less alone on this human journey to acknowledge and connect with some of the many lives which have gone before us. At a time in human history when it has never been more important that we create balance between the demands of humans and other species, we can't come easily to the debate on future development without a feeling for the past. Human experience is part of a continuum - we don't exist in a vacuum - and the prevailing trend to value of news relating to celebrities - people we don't know and have never met - is short-changing ourselves in our need for cultural roots.
African folklore was transmitted from one generation to the next for millennia, and the pre-colonial education system in India, wonderfully described by the author Shashi Tharoor in his book 'Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India', relied on spoken transmission from teacher to student to imbue the content with human meaning and significance. As Tharoor eloquently points out, "one of the lessons you learn from history is that history sometimes teaches the wrong lessons"; rather than a negation of history's value, though, this statement is in fact an invitation to engage with our past, and see how we can build from these foundations a better future. And the small-scale histories that we glean from our local environment - human, built-environment, landscape, and sometimes a blend of all three - are the sand-grains from which the most sturdy edifices can be constructed.
* Inglorious Empire: what the British did to India. Shashi Tharoor