For a photographer, everything depends on where you are standing when you take the shot: get too close and you get the detail, but lose perspective; stand too far back and the picture you end up with is too broad to be really interesting. Historians recognise the process, zooming in and out to find the right range through which to understand the past. Big sweeping histories have their flaws and benefits, while micro-studies clearly come with own drawbacks, too. But there is another art to history – just as there is to photography: you have to be facing the right direction in the first place.
The world around us is changing, but what we teach our students at primary, secondary and university level is not keeping pace. As far as the study of history goes, there are too many people standing in the same place, focusing on the same things. Although former education secretary Michael Gove was restrained from refocusing the school curriculum as closely on the British Isles as he would have liked, we are failing the next generation of politicians, charity workers, doctors, diplomats and business people who come though our educational system without the knowledge, skills or curiosity to understand peoples and cultures beyond the narrowest boundaries. In the classroom and lecture theatre, the focus is relentlessly on the history of a tiny part of the picture – the West, with all its faults and failings – and almost nothing about anywhere or anyone else.
The geographical boundaries do not have to be pushed far for blank looks to spread. Can anyone say anything intelligible about the Jagiellon dynasty, who ruled one of the largest political entities Europe has known – obscured because its centre of gravity was in Eastern, rather than Western Europe; or the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, which flourished for more than a millennium, only to be dropped into the backwaters of serious scholarship – rather than be seen as a model of statecraft, diplomacy and tolerance? This, of course, is just scratching at the surface: that large parts of Europe are a blank slate is just the start of it.
In today’s increasingly globalised world, it is hard to understand an educational system that does not teach students the basics about those whose decisions already have a major effect on our economy, our society and our well-being. Whether the bankers at Goldman Sachs are right about the emergence of the new economic superpowers, it is painfully obvious that countries such as Russia, China, India, Iran and others beyond demand our attention – and should require us to look into their pasts, alongside our own. Ask most school-leavers or graduates to name a Russian opposition figure, Chinese novelist, Indian artist, Iranian poet or Arabic pop star and you will draw a blank: that is as good as a rock-solid promise. Awareness of civilisations other than our own is practically nil.
That is a problem for two reasons. First, there is the issue of perspective. If we know nothing about those who will provide potential challenges and rivalries, but also possible opportunities and alliances, then there are troubles ahead as we use the lens of emotion rather than that of considered knowledge and logic. The second reason is that we are fooling ourselves about our own importance. There can be no doubt that Western Europe has enjoyed a good few centuries. But, as I argue in a new book, the construct of our own past is flawed and deeply misleading: even the very name of the Mediterranean – the centre of the earth – is nonsense. The region where empires rose and fell (including those of the West, in fact) was nowhere near a small, irrelevant sea that separates Europe, Africa and a small corner of Asia. The place to stand to understand history of the world is along the bridge that link East with West – along what are romantically referred to as the Silk Roads.
The networks that connect the Pacific with the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean with the Baltic Sea are not only important to understand the world of today and tomorrow, they should also lie at the heart of our understanding of the past. We have ignored them because we thought we could afford to do so. Yet this is where the world’s great religions have all risen, borrowed, competed and fought – where Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Islam were born. This is where the Indo-European languages collided with the Semitic tongues, where Altaic and Sino-Tibetan tongues wagged alongside and learned from each other. Along these routes flowed fabrics, spices and luxuries – as well as disease, violence and danger. The Silk Roads are – and always have been – the world’s central nervous system.
Old story, new perspectives
Taking up position here to view the past yields astonishing insights into events that we thought we knew all about already. The well-trammelled path of the First World War, for example, cemented by lessons and lectures on the German military machine and the July crisis, looks very different when viewed from the oil fields whose fruits were secured by Churchill 11 days before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, allowing the Royal Navy to know that their battleships would be able to take to the high seas in the event of war. Or there is Columbus, who set off on his journey not to see if the world was flat, but to look for a way to reach India and the East – and in so doing, to generate profits to enable the conquest of Jerusalem. The focus of the curriculum should encourage students to look at the bigger picture.
One major problem with removing the traditional blinkers is the collapse of language teaching in the UK, as the OCR's Paul Steer recently noted in TES. Barely 1 per cent of school-leavers take an A-level in a language other than French, German or Spanish – of whom a significant number are in any event native speakers. With no ability to speak, read or understand Russian, Polish, Arabic, Persian, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Mandarin (the list goes on), our ability to make sense of the world of the present and future – as well as the past – is severely limited.
As George Clark, former Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University, put it nearly 60 years ago, historians should expect their work "to be superseded again and again". That process of renewal, revision and challenge to the accepted script has become lost in the mists of trying to treat history as a series of data points and "facts", as Mr Gradgrind calls them in Hard Times. "A talent for following the ways of yesterday", declared the Chinese ruler Wu-ling in 307 BC, "is not sufficient to improve the world of today."
It is time that we addressed the same issue 2,500 years on and teach students about new ways of looking at history – rather than repeat what we ourselves were taught decades ago.
Dr Peter Frankopan is a senior research fellow at Worcester College, Oxford, and director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research. His new book The Silk Roads: a new history of the world is published by Bloomsbury