Whither history?

14 May 2019 | General News
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Prof Tan delivers his final IPS-Nathan Lecture at the Shaw Foundation Alumni House auditorium

Yale-NUS College President and 6th S R Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore Professor Tan Tai Yong wrapped up the IPS-Nathan Lecture Series, organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS, by extolling the importance of history. In the sixth and final lecture at the Shaw Foundation Alumni House auditorium on 8 May, Prof Tan addressed the question “What to Do with History?”, saying that understanding the circumstances and actions of the past helps us to comprehend the present.

“Even as we look forward, it is important to understand that our current situation is always the result of preceding events, and that we are shaped by the circumstances, choices and actions of the past. Therefore, we cannot understand our present situation without knowing history, much as we have been reminded that progress cannot be made by constantly looking at the rear mirror,” he said.

Prof Tan offered three tools to foster an understanding of history and how it affects personal and public lives — historical literacy or knowledge, historical consciousness and historical imagination. He asserted that it is necessary to build upon the foundation of historical knowledge in order to make history “personally relevant and meaningful”.

Even as we look forward, it is important to understand that our current situation is always the result of preceding events, and that we are shaped by the circumstances, choices and actions of the past. Therefore, we cannot understand our present situation without knowing history, much as we have been reminded that progress cannot be made by constantly looking at the rear mirror.

Historical consciousness relies on collective memories to make sense of why things happen and understand the context of actions taken, and events that took place, while historical imagination is having the open-mindedness to observe clues and unconventional sources to view the past from a different perspective. Together, these three tools provide a richer understanding and relationship with history.

To illustrate how these three concepts can come together to ward off the oft-heard complaints that history is dry and boring, Prof Tan cited First Storeys, an interactive theatrical installation project from Yale-NUS College’s The Future of Our Pasts Festival that was held earlier this year. The project tapped on historical knowledge about the nascent years of public housing in Singapore, historical consciousness through collective memories about the housing relocation that a significant portion of Singaporeans experienced in the 1970s, and historical imagination using the artist’s grandparents’ experience to create a performance that enabled attendees to immerse themselves in that moment in history.

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About 250 people attended the lecture

“Personal and shared historical experience is an important marker and maker of identity, and having a strong sense of historical consciousness will not only give us a better appreciation of our identities; it would help make sense of what makes and holds us together as a community and a country,” explained Prof Tan, “...history is not just about bringing us to speed with what we were, and what we are now. Historical imagination comes into play here. We weave past events, interactions and individuals into a comprehensible narrative.”

Ultimately, Prof Tan said, history is necessary in order to develop an informed society that can guard itself against civic ignorance, fake news and other divisive situations.

“As Singapore develops as a country, it is critical for us to have a deeper, more inclusive and more nuanced appreciation of our history and heritage. This should not be driven solely by the state, in the form of national education; we should also encourage bottom up, community-led efforts so that history becomes an organic, shred and inclusive force in the making of national identity,” he added.