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Professor Livingston Smith, Vice President, and Provost, UCCI Let’s not devalue the study of History - Local History - Part One

Education 17 Apr, 2024 1 Comments Follow News

Dr Livingston Smith

Our society is increasingly dominated by the private sector’s ideas about returns on spending, that expects education to serve ‘useful’, tangible, and measurable purposes.  In this context, the functions of history can seem more difficult to define than those of engineering, accounting, finance, or medicine, not to mention technical and vocational subjects.  For many, the developers of a society are those who use their considerable resources to build businesses, physical edifices, and landmarks. As Peter Stearns of the American Historical Society puts it, ‘Historians do not perform heart transplants, improve highway design, or arrest criminals.

Committed to the tyranny of the now, for an increasing number of persons, it is the present that matters, they insist, even though they may plan for and worry about the future. They find no beauty, no intellectual challenge, no excitement, and no links to their own lives, in knowing about the ways people in distant places decades of years ago, much less hundreds, constructed their lives. They have little time to challenge the Marxian notion that, ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make history just as they please; they make it under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.’

Why do some educational programs insist on including some history- not to mention, even local history? Why suggest that it is desirable for new members of a society to engage with the past of the society that they wish to be part of.  Who has time to purchase a history book, much less to read it?  How many members of the Caymanian society, new and old, know about the foundational text on Cayman’s history, Founded Upon the Seas: A History of Cayman Islands and Their People, a book admittedly in need of revision?

The ‘narrow utilitarian’ perspective has difficulty grasping the value of historical knowledge for the cultivation of citizenship, critical thinking, and simple awareness that the study of history brings. And yet, these same individuals are interested in doing ‘deep’ analysis of the society and to be taken seriously.  The fact that the analysis and interpretation of history provides an essential context for evaluating contemporary institutions, politics and cultures is sometimes lost.

How does one make sense of the current issues and their impacts without having some understanding of the historical contexts that gave rise to them?  While it is true that knowledge of the past may not bring easy solutions to problems, without a thorough knowledge of past events and circumstances, we could not even attempt to grapple with these problems, historians insist.

It is important to look back in order to look forward, to understand the past to shape the future more consciously; to understand historical continuities as the platform to create a more just and democratic society. The past and the present are always intertwined, the past interfacing with the present in both good and bad ways. The study of history does not lead to exact predictions of the future, as the complex settings in which we act are never twice the same. What we have as certainties are probabilities, possibilities, and complexity. One can even question the possibility of learning from history, but hopefully, we can understand the forces, choices and circumstances that brought us to our current circumstances.

A studious appreciation of the key aspects of Cayman’s history: its early settlement, the nature of its relatively brief slave past, the economy of the early days, various attempts at economic viability, the evolution of government, Caymanian family life and early culture, the nature of the relationship between Jamaica and Cayman, and particularly the modern transformation of the population, is critical to make sense of any current situation. There are few countries which have experienced transformations in demography and modernity as quickly and as thoroughly as have the Cayman Islands. This means that for the Cayman Islands, in a real sense, the past is like ‘yesterday’ and not centuries ago.

A study and knowledge of local history is not only fun but is indispensable to a real understanding of the society itself.  Stearns is right. ‘History is in fact very useful, actually indispensable, but the products of historical study are less tangible, sometimes less immediate, than those that stem from some other disciplines.’

How can a country can understand its own character or fully appreciate its unique identity without an accurate knowledge of its past?   How can the young of a society properly appreciate other cultures, without being immersed in their own? The study of history grounds us as well as provide a critical understanding of who we are, says Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher, essayist, and cultural critic.  How can a multicultural society forge bonds of cohesion without having strong ties, understanding and appreciation of the culture of local society itself?

Thinkers like Caribbean intellectual icon Rex Nettleford and Michel Foucault, French philosopher, and historian of ideas, have always pointed to the importance of history for self -knowledge and self –empowerment.  As Foucault reminds us, correctly used, history is a form of critical self-knowledge that promises a certain freedom. There is no reason why its study should cripple and imprison us by setting boundaries of what seems possible, as Nietzsche cautions in his work On the Use and Abuse of History. 

How does a society hope to forge a national identity without engaging with its past?   As Sears points out, this is unquestionably one of the reasons all modern nations encourage its teaching in some form. Historical data include evidence about how families, groups, institutions, and whole countries were formed and about how they have evolved while retaining cohesion.

Sears continues, historical study, in sum, is crucial to the promotion of that elusive creature, the well-informed citizen. It provides basic information about the background of our political institutions and about the values and problems that affect our social well-being.

‘A study of history is essential for good citizenship. It lays the foundations of genuine citizenship. History provides data about the emergence of national institutions, problems, and values—it is the only significant storehouse of such data available. It offers evidence also about how nations have interacted with other societies, providing international and comparative perspectives essential for responsible citizenship. Further, studying history helps us understand how recent, current, and prospective changes that affect the lives of citizens are emerging or may emerge and what causes are involved. More important, studying history encourages habits of mind that are vital for responsible public behavior, whether as a national or community leader, an informed voter, a petitioner.’

It is only through a thorough knowledge and understanding of the history of the Cayman Islands, how the society was formed and how it has evolved, that one can hope to understand its people and culture. This understanding then, in turn, will lead to an appreciation of how far the islands have come, current successes and travails. I will continue with this exploration in the next article.


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Dr. Neely Panton

19 Apr, 2024

Congrats Liv.

The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.
Sir Winston Churchill