Monday, May 27

A Coat Rack For Knowledge

Yes, I know it has become fashionable to look down on history –along with the rest of the humanities– as a form of glorified navel-gazing. We live in the present, and the past is in the past: there’s nothing we can do to change it, so why bother (besides, we can always google whatever date we happen to need); we should be looking forward, not backwards; and so on, but I am here to tell you that, if used properly, history –or something close to it– can be one of the most powerful tools in your mental toolkit… you just have to learn to think about it in a different way.

The problem is to be found mostly in the way history is taught, or maybe even conceived of, with a narrow focus on human affairs, and often as a long string of meaningless dates that must be memorized for no good reason, and are, well, meaningless. In fact I will be perfectly honest, and tell you that there are quite a few historians who would be absolutely horrified at my conception of their precious discipline. Well, as far as I’m concerned they can go hang because the bottom line is that –if we stick to their rather narrow definition of it– we will find ourselves staring at a long string of meaningless dates once more, and I fully agree that that is not anyone’s idea of fun, or of a branch of knowledge that can be the least bit useful, especially when no effort is made to either connect with that past, or bring it to life. The thing is that that is not the only way in which we could think about it, nowhere near it.

Forget about the dates, or at least set them aside for a minute. The specific dates are not what this is all about, it never was, even if that’s what your teachers insisted on quizzing you about. It is mostly about time as a sequence, and history as a sort of coat rack with pegs on it that runs along that sequence.

Time is, after all, one of those concepts we can understand at an instinctive level, one we can easily use as a guiding principle to organize… well, to organize pretty much everything, to tell you the truth, because at the end of the day everything has a history.

Take one of the most complex scientific concepts you are likely to be familiar with, one that would seem to be as far removed from history as it can possibly be: the Standard Model (i.e. the modern concept of the atomic structure). Trying to make sense out of that one in a vacuum can be a pretty daunting proposition. No matter how you try to square that particular circle, the blasted thing just doesn’t fit with our instinctive understanding of the world because the particles involved exist at a scale we can’t fully comprehend, one that follows its own rules and principles, but the Standard Model didn’t just emerge out of the waters, fully formed. It evolved, it grew from concepts that were, if not altogether accurate, at least simpler and easier to grasp. The problem is that in our fast paced world taking the time to learn about things we already know are wrong feels like a waste of time. Well, waste away, because if you take it one step at a time, starting with the extremely primitive notions of the Greeks –who had nothing to guide them but their common sense– about the nature of matter, and follow its development through to the modern world, you will get, wait for it, to an understanding of the Standard Model that no longer feels quite so alien. No, the subatomic particles are not going to feel any more familiar. Their behavior, and their realm, will remain as weird and as outrageous as ever, but at least you will understand how was it that we got to that point, how was it that we came to see them from a particular perspective… and the same goes for pretty much every other concept that is out there. That is no mean feat for a much maligned little discipline!

Or take the concept of Big History, which pushes the boundaries of the discipline as we know it to their very edges, to encompass… everything.

The Big Bang? That too is history, the rather explosive beginning of the blasted thing, to be accurate. The creation of the elements at the heart of dying stars? That too can be fit into a timeline, so that one too qualifies as a part of history. The formation of the earth? Ditto. Evolution and the history of life? That one has history in its very name, and you can add plate tectonics and the drifting of the continents to that list, after all there is no way to think of that one that is not chronological, and so on, and so on. In other words, Big History uses history as a basic framework, and goes on to incorporate all the different disciplines into one single, coherent narrative.

That kind of narrative is something most of us could certainly use.

Yes, I get why specialization is important, why it is useful. I understand that human knowledge expanded past what a single mind could possibly hope to grasp with any real depth a very long time ago, and that if we wanted to move past that point we had no choice but to break things down, but even though we keep trying to break down the world around us into a number of discreet chunks that can then be put under a microscope, and studied independently, at the end of the day that distinction is an utterly artificial one, and that is not something we can afford to forget. The world we live in exists as a whole, and there are no armed guards policing the boundaries that separate those disciplines… though at times scientists seem to be determined to take on that role, carefully guarding their turf. Don’t let them. Reclaim your right to know, your right to travel unimpeded from one discipline to the next, and then use the tools from one to make sense of the next, to see it from a different perspective. Go digging into the past, find a thread –any thread– and follow it through time, see how it twists and turns, see how it interacts with other threads, see where it takes you. That is what history is all about… or maybe I should say it should be.

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