Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Laboratory of Human Experience

NigeriaDecides2015

In 1999, Bill Gates said “the Internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow.” Many things happen in a town square on a daily basis – commerce, leisure, entertainment, and the sharing of news. Since Mr. Gates made his observation, the world of social media has taken our village in new directions that he was unlikely to have foreseen. This edition of the History Rhyme will briefly focus on the news gathering and disseminating part of this role and then look at why historians are so important in helping us to make sense of what we have heard in Mr. Gates’ town square.

Up until recently, news and opinion on the events of the world have been available mainly through websites created by traditional print and broadcast media (e.g. the Wall Street Journal or CNN). In the past couple of years, the contribution by social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn has started to be gain significance in the global village. The news and information that are available through these channels may lack some of the polish of those offered from more traditional media, but they allow a variety of persons to help readers to better understand our world. Examples of this can been seen both locally and internationally. In the United States, events in Ferguson, Missouri were brought to a more personal level through the comments and pictures of the people who were eye witnesses to the various protests and riots that occurred throughout the year. On the international level, information about events such as the Russian occupation of Crimea were enhanced by the words and pictures of eyewitnesses. Although access to such information makes people more aware of events (if they choose to look) it does not necessarily help them to understand what is going on – more on that later…

Today (this blog was written on March 28, 2015), there was another example of how the Internet village spreads news through social media – the election of a president in Nigeria (which was covered extensively on Twitter under the hashtag #NigeriaDecides). From my viewpoint in the United States, the election appeared to be between a sitting president, Goodluck Jonathan, who had been accused of corruption and incompetence, and his primary opponent, Muhammadu Buhari, who took power in Nigeria in a bloodless coup in 1984 and then was deposed in another coup in 1985. Without context, it would appear to be a choice of the lesser of two evils (incompetent civilian or military dictator). Thankfully, the Internet village has offered me the chance to at least try to understand better what is happening through the help of Nigerian and fellow historian – Adejoke Rafiat Adetoro (found on Twitter @lyabadan). Her activity on Twitter and that of others she follows has kept me informed and updated on the voting that occurred today. These Nigerians gave me a feel of what it was like to discuss the issues of the campaign, know what it was like to stand in the long lines at polling stations, read the election results, and consider what Nigeria will be like after the elections. I am grateful for her help in offering this American a window into how the election has been perceived and experienced by those it affected the most – the Nigerian people.

A couple of weeks ago while discussing the upcoming election with my fellow historian, Ms. Adetoro made a comment that is the real focus of this month’s blog – the need for historians in our world. She mentioned to me that “politicians are busy re-writing history to suit their campaign.” Although acknowledging that this is not a new development, she felt that the example in Nigeria was especially troubling since the study of history is disappearing from Nigerian curriculum and that history departments in Nigerian universities are focused on Nigerian diplomacy. This leaves the Nigerian people vulnerable to a twisting of the past to justify anything. As a fellow historian, I certainly could not argue with her view that the study of the past has great value to understanding the present. As stated many times before, that is the reason for the History Rhyme to exist. I know that we are not the only ones who feel that way. Hopefully, if you are reading this blog, you feel the same way too.

To close this month’s blog, I will bring to our attention a short essay entitled “Why Study History?” that was written in 1998 by Dr. Peter Stearns of George Mason University. It offers good ammunition for us historians to use when someone starts saying that there is no value in the study of history (which Stearns says gives us “access to the laboratory of human experience”) or in the training of historians in our modern world. Stearns makes some excellent assertions on the value of historical study for society (e.g. “history offers a storehouse of information about how people and societies behave,” and that “history provides data about the emergence of national institutions, problems, and values – it’s the only significant storehouse of such data available.”). He also makes very valid points on the types of “soft skills” learned studying history that makes the student valuable to the corporate world – the ability to assess evidence, the ability to assess conflicting interpretations, and experience in assessing past examples of change. Sterns’ general conclusion, which mirrors the comments of my source for Nigerian news these last few weeks, is simply that “historical study, in sum, is crucial to the promotion of the elusive creature, the well-informed citizen.”

Keep learning from others and let them learn from you. Until next month…