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From The Theosophical Movement
Vol 70 No. 7 - May, 2000

Why study history? What can it teach us? Is its function merely to give us a picture of external events? Those who brush it aside as simply a "fortuitous flux" void of plan or sequence, rhythms or patterns, cycles or evolution, indeed miss much. It has been said that "those who ignore history are condemned to relive it," for history, like everything else, proceeds in cycles.

    In the opinion of Rene Zapata, director of UNESCO's Culture of Peace Unit, the teaching of history needs to be re-thought and textbooks revised so as to inspire understanding and recognition between peoples instead of war and division. Seeing our past as a series of dates, battles and warriors distorts it, masking the history of peoples that most of us have yet to learn. The February issue of Unesco Sources observes that there is "history beyond the battlefield":

    History textbooks are the mirror of our societies. They reflect our way of looking at the past and glorifying it in such a way that it will serve as an example for future generations. "The history which is taught in most of the world, however, and even in the democratic countries, is a subject wherein the actors are essentially political and military figures, and the principal theatres battlefields, "says Mirta Lourenco of UNESCO's Culture of Peace Unit.
    Moreover, these heroes are often tyrants or slave traders. Full of clichés, this history fosters a vision of belligerence, prejudicial to the popular will for peace. "In assessing the causes and monstrosity shown in the conduct of two world wars, for example, governments, international associations and educators placed a considerable portion of the blame on the type of education provided to young Europeans. In particular the teaching of history was found guilty of contaminating the young with all those negative attributes brewing conflicts," says Dr. Evangelos Kopos, the Senior Balkan Area Adviser at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy in Athens….
    "UNESCO and its various commissions composed of historians, teachers, publishers, and educators, propose to conceive history no longer as a succession of conflicts between states but as a mesh of relationships with the potential for co-operation, solidarity and integration," says unit chief Christophe Wondji….Revising textbooks, bringing history closer to that of peoples' daily lives, will help us to get to know each other better and hopefully become more tolerant.

    To make world unity a reality, the peoples of the world must become familiar with one another; and this means becoming familiar with one another's history, since human beings do not live just in the immediate present. The whole conception of history must change and it should include all those branches of knowledge, all those departments of human thought and activity, which ultimately lead to the well-being and progress of humanity. That would mean a readjustment of our ideas of how the ideal history ought to be written. No history can be complete unless it embraces three broad divisions: the relation of man to his environment; the relation of man to man; and the relation of man to man; and the relation of man to the ultimate purpose of his life. History, if it is to play its part adequately, must give us the intimate, inside picture of the human heart and feelings and make man alive to us.

    We stand today at a crucial point in our history where our future on this planet is uncertain, says Ervin Laszlo in his article "Moral Criteria on an Endangered Planet" (Holistic Science and Human Values, Transaction 4, 1999). Laszlo, science adviser to UNESCO and author of many books, sounds a note of warning and stresses the need for a new ethic:

    While on the one hand we could pave the way towards a system of social, economic, and political organization that is peaceful and capable of ensuring an adequate level of sustainability of the human life-supporting environment, on the other we could find ourselves on a descending path towards growing social, political and environmental crises and possibly catastrophes. The choice at this point of bifurcation is still open. It merits deep reflection and decisive action.
    Opting towards a positive scenario calls for an improved set of behaviours. This in turn requires a set of moral criteria, authoritative enough to be accepted by people and assimilated into their everyday life….Today, the power of religious-doctrine-based codes for moral behaviour has been diminished by the advance of science. Yet, even if science has displaced religion as a source of authority in the minds of modern people, scientists have not come up with alternative codes and criteria. There have been a few attempts, yet in the twentieth century they have been largely abandoned….
    Since the time is short and the choice pressing, a conscious formulation of a scientifically based ethics is a high priority; it is needed to accelerate the discussion, and ultimately the acceptance, of a suitable set of criteria for guiding individual and social behaviour.
    The required criteria are to provide guidelines for the interaction of people with people, and people with nature. This means criteria based on a naturalistic science-based ethics: a planetary ethics….
    The practical application of planetary ethics must be the next development. Its principles need to be explicitly stated and widely propagated. The recognition must dawn that all living things, and all system made up of living things, have value in and of themselves, including the biosphere, the largest system on planet Earth. And all things that make up the relevant environment of these systems have instrument value in view of their contribution to the subsistence and evolution of the biosphere and its manifold systems.

For centuries, it was the world's great religions that disseminated moral criteria in the form of codes and commandments. The trend is now changing. Not only did the second Parliament of the World's Religions convened in Chicago in 1993 note that "there will be no better global order without a global ethic," but the Union of Concerned Scientists was of the same opinion. "A new ethic is required," claimed the statement signed in April 1993 by 1670 scientists from 71 countries, an ethic which "must motivate a great movement, convincing reluctant leaders and reluctant governments and reluctant peoples themselves to effect the needed changes."

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