26th October – What lessons from the past could imply for our future?

For much of modernity, the study of history has been a largely political narrative of great men, their decisions, victories, and follies. History is in fact much broader than political history. It can involve, for example, the history of science and technology, or more specifically, the history of how water has shaped the course of civilisations and cultures.

Often, the most historically-momentous changes in any given era are not fully visible to those who live through them. It is evident that one of the most consequential histories of the 20th century is that of anthropogenic climate change.

Broaden the perspective –

  • The purpose of studying history needs to be broader, too. Building on the earlier example of water, we must ask the question why we today find ourselves on the brink of the worst water crisis ever in south Asian history.
  • In answering this question, we must seek lessons from the past that would inform our plans for the future. Indeed, the study of history must deliver learning outcomes such as empathy, humility, and perspective relevant to the unpredictable world of the future.

Developing empathy –

  • How can the study of history help a learner develop empathy? When we examine the question of what a historical truth is, we realise that there are multiple ways in which events can be memorialised.
  • For example, much of colonial history has been presented through the lens of Western imperial powers. However, one of the most influential movements in Indian historical research, the school of subaltern studies, attempts to capture the world views and the historical memory of non-elite and marginalised groups in India’s past.
  • This builds empathy for others and a respect for diverse views of the world. There is great value in seeing ourselves as others see us, and in seeing in the struggles of others a mirror of our own.

Learning humility –

What can history teach us about humility? History reminds us that we are but tiny specks in the vast desert of time. New approaches to history can shake our ego-centricity. For example, we might study history with nature and other species, rather than humanity, at the centre.

Decision making –

Finally, history can help us understand the context for decision-making and develop effective, even if imperfect intuition, through a study of instances, decisions and outcomes. In this respect, the history of policymaking, including the study of paths not taken and that of the unintended consequences of well-intentioned interventions, can be illuminating.

Cross-disciplinary approach –

  • Beyond the question of what history can be and why we must study it, there is also the question of how we can study history in innovative ways. For example, we may integrate an environmental angle into the study of past decisions, as an important force shaping the range of choices and constraints faced by past societies.
  • Scholars in the digital humanities have begun to use techniques of data science to generate new insights on large-scale patterns in cultural, social and economic history.
  • Analysing historical what-if scenarios, such as how different societies coped with natural disasters, can help develop critical thinking.

Way forward –

  • We must also consider how to connect the past with the future. We might begin to think about the long-term consequences of human progress taking place today. When the engineers and architects of modern India set about building dams, they did so with the intention of liberating farmers from the vagaries of the monsoons.
  • Further, the reality of climate change has been indisputable for decades now, yet the world has struggled to do anything about it. History can help us better understand how political rhetoric, self-interest, manipulation and, more broadly, culture shape our response to future threats.


QuestionExamine the lessons that we can derive from the pages of history, apart from the political and social ones.

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