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How History will Shape Our Future

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

Queen Elizabeth II in Zomba, Malawi

In February 2006, Professor Ken Robinson delivered a momentous talk at TED2006. The entertainment aside, his talk hinged on the mistake modern education makes in ranking academic subjects which, with it, comes the definition of who in our midst can be branded real geniuses. And defines those who do not make the list. The candid outcome of this ranking places undue emphasis on the sciences as the most important disciplines, while ignoring the arts as worthy of requiring the craftiness of talent to actualize and change lives. It turns out, many children fail to reach their potential as they scrape through the heavy and complicated language of science so they can earn respect and a decent life in modern society. Yet, a life saturated with science defeats many aspects of our social being, and as the humorous professor illustrates, there is more to transforming humanity beyond mathematical formulae.

This article dedicates some energy towards a science, or rather an art, that is facing extinction in the higher Malawian education system: History. Fewer and fewer people are graduating as History majors from Chancellor College, making Professor Kings Phiri and company more relevant to sociology students, and to Malawi's development sector, valuable consultants.

Here is part of the why. If you want to guarantee a life of servitude teaching secondary school students, many say, dedicate your academic energies to subjects like History. In other words, you have to have the most unusual impetus to waste your life and academic potential away to study History. The economic prospects lining up before you in the life after college look just as bleak. Whichever way one looks at it, your future hardly identifies with glamorous ambitions. Yet, History's prowess is much more versatile than that.

As this article would like to argue, an important missing piece in Malawi’s development is the application of History, as a science but also as an art (which, at this point, are the same thing to us). Our regular understanding of the discipline called History is couched in the study of present and past events. Our early academic instruction does not excite us beyond the appreciation of the dense prose we learn being integral in every aspect of running a country, in business, natural sciences and personal lives in the present. So we easily ignore the very essence of our cultural beginnings, which have relied on archaic forms of information relays, allowing us to alter our food gathering and preservation patterns that were themselves beneficiaries of historical lessons from droughts or other natural disasters decades before.

According to the 1961 writings of English Historian Edward Hallett “Ted” Carr, history reflects human progression and regression. A step further should take us to understanding it as not just having provided a systematic way of recording phenomena, but also a way to easily access such information continuously and affordably. History matters, and it is no doubt that institutions, culture, knowledge and technology, and movements between multiple equilibria have evolved over time, and show us how mankind has weathered impossible eras and innovatively transformed many calamities into opportunities for survival. This allows us, in the present, to cascade learning by building on the past so as to nurture the beautiful things that our minds are able to fantasize now and in the future.

From Colonial Power to Sculpting our Present.

Economic historians La Porta, Lopez-de-Silanes, Shleifer and Vishny, in 1997 and 1998, scrutinized the impacts that colonialism has had on the current state of developing countries. Our very history, as a country, attests to the effect of colonial oppression that was passed on through the 'guise' of Kamuzu Banda’s dictatorial rule, which we also argued in a past column continues in our current forms of government. Malawi’s history enables us to understand the manner in which independence from colonial rule never prepared a people that would rule themselves in modern forms of government, an aspect that the political elites have taken advantage of to this very day. Another great example being the role of colonialism in elevating the Tutsis over the Hutus in Rwanda, for which History would have rendered better alternatives to the 1994 genocide.

A peek at Malawi's current leaders unearths the unfair colonial tendencies that countrymen thought they had done away with, yet continue as the display of entitlement in our leadership, affirming their willingness to let the majority suffer at their pleasure. But History did not exclusively affect the political arena. Trade deals that go by certain rules, set up mainly by Western nations and the nods of poor governments, perpetuate the deterioration of the developing world. Take, for example, the advances that countries that have resisted global trade rules of the Doha Round and globalization norms in South-East Asia. These countries have crafted their own rules, which they have followed, defending their local industries when necessary, yet taking advantage of open channels that international trade provides. They have developed. Yet, Western-style education continues to reinforce in us what we could term trade speak, the minimums that have to be followed if we are to benefit from international exchange. The rules punish us when we protect our workers and aim to give our farmers a fair deal, while the United States and the European Union protect theirs.

It should be no surprise that the developing world is subsidizing developed countries in trillions of dollars year after year.

Is there a Malawian model of development?

And, indeed, in line with Ted Carr’s philosophy, Malawians would have realized from recent history how erroneous decisions in electing certain types of leaders can be detrimental to national sanity and relief from all we wail about. It would have taught us that certain development policies will not be useful to fight HIV and AIDS in a country whose statistics on the disease illustrate obstinacy to significant positive change. And yes, History would have taught us that blending our culture with development plans may be the crucial missing link in seeing certain projects run to completion.

History helps to reveal facts about our past behavior, thinking and judgement, but importantly should help shape our present and future. While mankind has been able to build the impossible, there are more times than one when we have also created potential or even real catastrophes. For example, a history of technology shows us easily how our modern inventions are emitting into the atmosphere lead, or carbon dioxide at a speed that will toxify the air at levels the earth will soon not be able to self-correct. Based on the foregoing, History holds the keys to helping us avert some disasters that we may have failed to handle in the past, while revealing intrinsic behaviors that have allowed all people, Malawians included, to persist in times of lean and bounty in the past, acts worth repeating without the adoption of foreign pity to ease our sorry situations. In fact, it would have exhumed the profound belief in our own pride that would have pushed forward values that necessitate the education our children receive and investments in their future, while keeping true to the merits of being Malawian.

It must be an imperative for any development agenda to move beyond the official gazette, media, and other forms of reporting about events, to mainstreaming the systematic and academic art of recording events. It will be the treasure that will help us measure our failures as well as our successes in every realm.

Malawians ought to revert to the realization that, culturally, our societies are already woven into storytelling, which has been a formidable tool for passing on enormous amounts of history generation after generation. Yet, such intellect has not materialized much into the empowerment of this social science to shape the way in which our population responds to the changes in the world within and that beyond our boundaries.

History, then, must find itself a part of delivery of every advanced course, making it to engineering, economics, science, banking and finance, politics and diplomacy, and so on. Once we define the hidden genius behind our traditional architecture, par exemple, will we start to believe in ourselves and tailor development to respond to the needs of our country and our children’s future. It is at that point that we will inspire creativity in both the sciences and the arts to design products and services that fit the Malawian model, allowing us the opportunity to select only those alien development propositions that align with our needs and interests.

But History need not be limited to Chancellor College. We do not know of people in the country that have studied the respective histories of agriculture, food security, banking and finance, non-governmental organizations, development planning, culture, transport and business in Malawi, just to mention a few key sectors. For all we know, we could have shaped current policies that draw on the lessons of the past to handle our present and future. It would allow us to have a bird’s eye view of our status as a country, to know why medium-term strategies that departed from the Vision 2020 were calamitous options.

If History is a science, then the caveat to Ken Robinson’s story is that there is also a hierarchy in the sciences. And that hierarchy ranks History at the bottom of the league, if one were to self-locate within the boundaries of Malawi. Nonetheless, a renegotiation of our philosophy of education requires to consider the necessity of drawing patterns that trace our past to the present.

And that is when development will truly start to benefit us all.


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