History: Time for clear vision

WORLD EMPIRES AND GREAT MOVEMENTS (from 5BC to 1871 AD) - A Student comparison for the Middle School Student - by Goolbhai Gunesekara. A Vijitha Yapa Publication, 2008-pp.134.

By Carl Muller

This thing called History.. what is it? What does it try to do, and what is its value in this workaday world? Is there a way to give it greater worth?

Our schools have, sadly enough, ignored the subject of History for a good many years, but there came a time of great transition, and today, history has begun to remind us that all the bits and pieces of what is good in civilization as a whole must be preserved, while the lumber can be gradually eliminated.

As we know, some of nature's preliminary experiments in the making of man did end in disaster. "Near-man" came and went. He was unable to bear the burden of life. Our own species, homo-sapiens, has survived, but we have been slow to learn our lessons. We followed a First World War with a second of greater venom and magnitude. But, had we turned to the findings of History, who knows, we could have avoided both conflicts and also learned to tame "the bloody wild beast" in us. This is not to say that History is like some medical text that offers remedies. "World Empires and Great Movements" as author Goolbhai Gunesekara has presented to us, will be of no value if our present-day student examinations are nothing more than memory tests. We need to check Goolbhai's pulse. In giving us this superb recounting, she reminds us that knowledge is only power when it is applied. She has also presented History in an attractive form and manner that has rarely been done before, and this will surely command the attention of the greatest possible middle school students as well as their teachers.

As she says in her preface, there has been a long-felt "need for a textbook that will give middle school students a general overview of historical events leading up to modern times."

Of course, Goolbhai is an educator, wholly immersed in her love of teaching. She is Principal of Asian International School, Colombo, and as you will see, this work is also "Asian-International" for it not only touches on ancient Greece, Rome, the Muslim World, the Renaissance and Reformation, but also the Mongols, the Americas, India under the Raj, The Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, the unification of Germany, then Italy, the rise of modern Japan and the American Revolution, but also brings in the Polonnaruwa period of our country.

It seems so obvious to me that Goolbhai will need to produce more such books. There is a whale of a lot more to be said and done, isn't there? This book will make teachers and students, even up to university level, know of what a vast store of experience History embodies. As has been said, "History is the oratorio of humanity." This is why this book is so important, and if you were to ask Goolbhai what led her to write it, I think she will have a deeper answer than what she tells of in her preface. She has wished to give our students, and for that matter, society, an understanding of historical foundations and of its enduring interests.

Shall we look at Chapter Six - "Sri Lanka: The Polonnaruwa Period [1055 to 1215CE] and Parakrambahu the Great." She reminds us that this was a period that saw enlightened rulers such as Vijayabahu, Parakramabahu I and Nissankamalla. Three kings carried our island's power into South India and Burma. Of course, students can find all this and more in other books, but many such are heavy tomes and not given to the succinct manner of presentation that strings together all the pearls and leaves out the bits of broken shell. In other words, not only does the student get an all-round impression of what is important, but is then ready to make further research and study, read more and progress on the building blocks that Goolbhai has laid in place.

Goolbhai has struck a "golden mean." She has not idolized or idealized yesterday. The book guides and also directs - and tells of the stumbling blocks and slippery stones. What is important is that we must understand that today is based on yesterday and that the new grows out of the old.

Take Chapter 1 on "Ancient Greece". She does not make of it an outpouring of geographical views or tell us, at first, of the four important branches of Ionians, Dorians, Aeolians and Achaens. She cuts into the taking in of many outside cultures and the launch of the idea of Democracy. She fixes on Sparta and Athens and on the high points - the heroic age of the Trojan War: Homer, the Spartan war. It would be immensely confusing to students to take in Greece in all its many facets that brought on the many voyages. Myth and legend could cause unnecessary problems with tales of the Gardens of the Hesperides on the coast of Libya, the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis and Spain with its mighty pillars of Hercules. All this remains part of earliest Greek mythology but these early tales did awaken the spirit of adventure that gave us the expeditions of the Argonauts.

In like manner is the rendering of Rome, the Muslim World, the great Italian-French-English movements and so on. Oh yes, there is so much and dealt with so adroitly, that we have listings of Greek philosophy (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle); Medicine (Hippocrates); Mathematics (Pythagoras); Religion (Zeus, Athena, Hera); Intellect (Sophists, Ethics and Logic); Architecture (Doric, Ionian, Corinthian); Science (Thales of Miletus); History (Herodotus); The Olympic Games (Athletics, Boxing, Wrestling, Chariot Racing).

She has filled each chapter with welcome pictures, maps and illustrations. A chronological table would have been most welcome. I will not go into the rest of this book for I will suddenly be faced with a review that could well be a book! But do capture the whole essence of this book that brings much of the world and from so many directions, to sit in our classrooms, fire our students with those visions of the great, the glorious ventures, trials, thoughts and developments that gave to us what we are today and allows us to sift and absorb the best of it all.

So much to know and learn of. My warm and sincere congratulations to the author who richly deserves recognition from our halls of learning.

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