Simon Schama, currently exploring the history of the Jews on BBC Two, is the guest contributor to Prospect Magazine’s quirky column, “If I ruled the world” this month.
While saying emphatically that he does not want the job he does give us a short wish-list of some of the trivial and not so trivial challenges he would take up if forced to put on the mantle of world leader.
In the latter category is the not very surprising but highly commendable desire to make it compulsory for people to study history up to 16 years of age – and for a minimum of two hours a week. His reflections on the subject are worth relaying, as also are his take on religious tolerance.
“It’s important for children to learn history because if you don’t know where we’ve come from, you don’t have much of an anchorage for the present. For example, once upon a time, Britain was a compulsively, ferociously Christian country. We fought the Civil War over religion and our religious wars didn’t stop until the 18th century. Because of that, we should be in a position to understand when religion, for better or worse, becomes political, as it is in a large part of the world.
“If I ruled the world, I would make it impossible to make “sin” a crime. I would make it a matter of international human rights that nobody should ever be prosecuted, much less punished, for blasphemy. Jefferson argued for that in 1770 but it doesn’t seem to have come about. I’m not an atheist, but I do think that everybody should be allowed with absolute impunity to profess whatever religion they have, or none.”
“History”, he concludes, “is a tragic muse. One of its great founding moments is the Peloponnesian War and the whole majestic, terrifying drama of that builds up to the expedition against Syracuse that sees Athens sailing into massive hubris. That is good, honest, western history. It should never be self-congratulation; it should keep people awake at night.”
Ruairi Quinn, Ireland’s Minister for Education, who is killing any real history teaching in Irish schools, and other totalitarians or would-be totalitarians masquerading as liberals, please take note.
Also in this month’s Prospect, A. C. Grayling touches on the uses and abuses of history – for there is no doubt but that the greatest villians have put history in shackles to serve their nefarious ends.
He writes of the abuse of history to serve the ends of “the arrant nonsense we call nationalism, patriotism and other dangerous absurdities”. Noting that most borders between states were drawn in the blood of wars and are highly artificial things, “a fiction of history” – in other words, not really history but only imagined history – “an uneven line on a map turned into a fetish.”
“All over the planet”, he notes, “there are claims by one country to ownership of part or even the whole of another. One of the more comical is Spain’s claim to Gibraltar – comical because Spain possesses about a dozen Gibraltars on and around the North African coast and even inside France… Yet Spain wants Gibraltar ‘back’. It has about as much right to it as Turkey has to Spain itself, through the historical link of the Caliphate.”
He talks a lot of sense. Why can’t we all grow up and preoccupy ourselves about the things that really matter?