I hate History. There are two reasons why.
Firstly, I was hopeless in History as a boy. It was all about learning dates of kings and queens and battles, and it had no relevance whatsoever, other than to reinforce the fact this history was written (or underwritten) by the victors and the rich aristocracy, and was very, very old.
Then, of course, you find out later that much of what you learned was wrong. Take Richard III: we were told he was a deformed hunchback who did evil things, including the killing of young princes in the Tower. Turns out, now they have found his remains in a parking lot in Leicester, he just had a touch of scoliosis, and was not a bad bloke at all. History had been written (with Shakespeare not helping at all) by political foes that had reason to besmirch his name.
By the time I got to O-levels we were studying the American War of Independence, and when I lived in upstate New York, I now and again bumped into vague memories of the Battle of Saratoga and the like. You couldn’t help being on the American’s side.
Now that I have grown up and worked alongside real historians, I realize what a wonderful subject it is, especially when it looks at the lives and fates of regular people. One of my favourite examples is the work of Sharon Meen at UBC who has traced the Jewish diaspora from Themar, a small town in Germany, using the affordances of the internet as a new research tool. It is quite magnificent.
I would advise any young person to take History as it is now taught: it is one of the perfect liberal arts, where you learn how to think, to research and to make sense of diverse options and contradictory facts: skills that are needed in almost any profession and of course for good citizenship. It is also good for the soul to know where one came from through one’s family and cultural history.
But to my second reason. In my work, I face many challenges, and have to make decisions about how to plan for the future of the university for the good of the students and the region it serves.
Almost any topic or initiative (and there must be 50 or so files in play at any time) comes with its baggage, and people love to tell me the history. Whenever someone says “you need to understand the history behind this” or “taking a step back for a moment” or “we must consider the historical context of where we find ourselves today” my heart drops practically to knee level.
First of all, I know I am into a long and convoluted story involving a wide cast of characters who I likely have not met, and who are unable to speak for themselves.
Secondly, the history I am being presented with is likely incomplete, or incorrect, or “idiosyncratic” (to put it politely).
Lastly, and most importantly, so what? How does this long-winded and patchy history help us move ahead now that, well, I am here for one, and most of the others involved in the tale are long gone, and (in case you hadn’t noticed) the world has changed quite a bit and is not slowing down?
Yes, there is something about dooming ourselves to repeat history if we don’t understand it, but increasingly, that aphorism no longer applies because the context changes so fast. I worry that a lot of history just provides a comfort zone for people and is maybe even therapeutic: it is easy to reminisce or to tell horror stories about the past than it is to predict the future and to act accordingly.
The academic world is wonderful at collecting reams of data (almost all of which looks backwards), and having extensive discussions about who said what and when, but when it comes to making a decision about moving forward in a way that anticipates an uncertain future, everyone clams up.
This came to mind as I prepared a presentation to the CHET seminar series at UBC last week. I called it “The Accidental Polytechnic University” because the establishment of KPU has been somewhat “intuitive” (to put it politely again). I was treading on dangerous ground because there were some icons of higher education in the audience, including former and current KPU leaders.
No one seemed to be too upset with what I came up with, but I have to say that my background research (talking to people, reading documents, etc.) never really gave me a coherent picture about who made what decisions and why. I am still bumping into people who remember the history of this university differently. Bottom line, it all had to do with politics, money and land, as far as I can tell.
Furthermore, knowing the sordid past does not help us go forward, so I did also share the progress we have made in our Vision 2018 and strategic plan. The history, however jumbled, does give some overall comfort to why we face the challenges that we do as a polytechnic university with community college funding, but, again (and I accept this as my own impatience and shortcoming), it doesn’t help us move forward.
Or, maybe it is my science background, and my view of life as an experiment, and believing that any results you get by trying something gives you valuable information about what to do next.
So I’d like us to consider KPU as a laboratory for “learning and doing”: being rooted, but not limited by, our past.
Now, to catch up on previous episodes of my current favourite historical drama: Downton Abbey.