One of the most unnerving questions a student can pose, circles around the matter of relevance. ‘Why am I doing this?’
In the study of History, for example, this probe is never meant as a genuine delving for answers. In fact, for most of structured learning, the same applies. The question is a suggestion that the discipline is completely useless and irrelevant. As the smart people put it: ‘The question is rhetorical.’
For our young people, historical studies is, in the words of a sage from another age, ‘a cruel strain on the memory for the sake of passing exams.’
But there is a permanent good, in sharp antithesis to a cruel strain, that comes to mankind so aptly described by the historian Burckhart when he concluded that historical studies is not intended ‘to make us more clever the next time, but wiser for all time’. The problem for our young people, when searching for relevance is that they have not seen much of that wisdom. Instead, they have seen foolishness, irrationality, selfish and nationalist ambitions, greed, revenge and ignorance displayed in too many forms of leadership. Although we think that most of these leaders are out there, they pop up so now and then when, at that awkward moment, you look into the mirror.
If we agree with the sage, Mortimer Jerome Adler, that ‘The highest value of history is prudent judgement in worldly affairs’, then we can appreciate why our students see no relevance in understanding history. The evidence around them shows that understanding history made no difference in us. From our calloused leadership in the refugee crises to the cold shoulder a parent give to a child needing appreciation, we have all failed to be an example shaped partly by a lack of understanding history. So, instead, our young people opt for alternative ‘examples’ often those in flashy cars, dark glasses against the glare of moonshine and, ironically, with chains around their necks.
But there are some amongst us, whose examples shine like bright lights in a grim world. They know that although emergencies are real, you cannot spend all your days putting out fires. Hasty decisions have become a rarity for them and they know when and how to say ‘no’. Also, they make time for reflection and refueling and would rather ‘do less but do it better’, than ‘progressing’ one inch in a million directions.
Most of all, they lead by example. They understand that their words and their actions are sparks that can either inflame hatred or ignite hope. They choose hope.
Of Sol Plaatje it was said that ‘personal example was his prime strategy’.
Now there’s a word from the past that can make us ‘wiser for all time’ and inspire us to ignite a generation of thinkers whose understanding of history will enable them to lead wisely when the time comes.
The Boer War Diary of Sol Plaatje, (1976) Edited by John L.Comaroff
The Paideia Program, (1984) Mortimer Jerome Adler
The Essentialist, (2014) Greg McKeown