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History as teacher and literature

History is a record of what people did in the past. When is the past? If an event that has been taking place has ended, its past has been determined. If an event continues, its recording belongs to current affairs not history.

Basically, history is a made of biographies of a country’s great people and great achievers. This is the view of Thomas Carlyle, a prominent 19th century British man of letters.

Writing or studying of history is a patriotic duty. Those who are ignorant of the basis history of their country are ill-equipped to participate in its public affairs. Hence to prepare young people for active citizenship, history must be taught to all pupils and students up to at least the Junior Certificate of Education level.

That some people do not enjoy reading history books is due to the fault of some authors. A person who loves reading fiction should enjoy reading a history book that is written creatively as is advocated by some authorities on historiography. History is storytelling. Most people enjoy stories that are told in an interesting manner.

The style used in writing a thesis is inappropriate for a history book. Some historians wrote their books in gripping style and made them classics. Who can read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire without being moved emotionally? The heroes and heroines of Gibbon’s books are enthralling as those of a bestselling novel. You have to read it to see the point.

Another good stylist was Winston Churchill, the Second World War Prime Minister of Great Britain. Both Gibbon and Churchill were masters of the English language. This is a prerequisite of competent writing; have a wide vocabulary from which to choose words that are appropriate for a certain piece of writing.

When Lytton Stracheu published his biographies titled Eminent Victorians and Queen Victoria, he created a new age in biography writing. His artistic style was initiated by such great authors as Andrew Maurois of France. Its books combined beauty with accuracy.

A question often asked of historians is how objective must one be in writing history. There are those who say a writer of history should be as scientific and objective, sticking to bare facts. Others argue against this and point out that history is not a science subject but an arts subject, part of the humanities. Avoid making the text as dry as dust.

The kind of bias we are talking about has nothing to do with falsification of facts. The sort of fabrication you find in a work of fiction has no place in the writing of either a history book or a biography.

In what sense is history a teacher? It contains personalities whose deeds and achievements are worth imitating and those personalities whose lives and misdeeds are a warning to later generations.

One of African statesman who picked lessons out of history was Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi. He was a great admirer of Frederick the Great of Prussia. The Prussian monarch prided himself as the first servant of his people. He loved reading and befriended the French novelist called Voltaire. He participated in the wars that broke up from time to time in Western Europe. But he knew when to pull out. Hitler ignored the lessons from Frederick’s life. His initial military successes made him think he could defeat anyone or any combination of enemies. When Frederick died, he left his country stronger. Hitler left Germany divided between victorious nations.

Dr Banda also practised the politics of going so far but no further. He knew that some of his former henchmen who had fled to neighbouring countries were plotting to come back and disturb the peace. Instead of quarrelling with neighbour presidents for welcoming rebels from Malawi Dr Banda went out of his way to cultivate friendship of Kaunda of Zambia, Nyerere of Tanzania and Chissano of Mozambique. The dissidents received no military or financial support in the neighbouring countries. Thus, Dr Banda was secure at home.

Wise people learn from their own mistakes, wiser people learn even from the mistake of other people, foolish people do neither.

The Ministry of Education should do its best to see that students thoroughly grounded in Malawian history before they are taught the histories of other countries.

Three or four weeks ago, I received students and teachers from an education institution who wanted to find out what I knew about John Chilembwe and in particular whether women had participated in the uprising. I told them that I had been informed during the time I was doing research on the life of Chilembwe that he had decided not to involve women for the sake of the children who would be helpless orphans if both their parents were to be killed.

In the course of discussion, I was surprised that neither the teachers nor the students had heard of the books Independent African by Professor Shepperson of Edinburg and Let Us Die for Africa by D.D. Phiri both of which deal with the life and death of Chilembwe. They confessed that in their school library, there were no copies of these books.

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