Facebook Wisdom

I just saw the following statement on my Facebook wall:

My students do not all understand why I say that the point of studying history is not to figure out who was good and who was bad.

This is so true. My students drive me to distraction with questions about who were “the bad guys” in every event we discuss. Whenever I say that “this was more complicated than that”, they seem to think I’m trying to hide my ignorance about what we are discussing.

Encyclopedic Knowledge

I’m reading a textbook on the history of Spain’s economy, hence the preceding post. I thought the book would bore me to death but it turned out to be more fascinating than a good mystery novel. I barely even blog because I’m so engrossed in this book.

I really envy the scholars of the past who had encyclopedic knowledge and cultivated it their entire lives. Of course, it is entirely possible that such scholars never existed and I’m pining for a fantasy of my own making.

Best Intentions

In the XIXth century, Spain was a predominantly agrarian, desperately poor, and miserably illiterate country. It lagged behind other Western European nations in terms of urbanization, industrialization, development of capitalism, spread of literacy, and women’s rights.

The peasants of the Meseta (the central part of Spain which is arid and infertile) managed to gather just enough crops to survive and sell a tiny little surplus if the year was good. Their grain was of inferior quality and quantity and couldn’t even begin to compete with imported grains from more technologically developed countries.

The government protected the peasants by imposing very high tariffs on imported grains. This spared the peasants the severe trauma of having to abandon the only way of life they had ever known. They could continue existing in familiar penury and weren’t forced to leave the barren land and move to the cities.

These protectionist policies prevented a lot of immediate suffering but caused serious long-term issues.  The world wasn’t standing still while Spain clung to its patriarchal agrarian existence. In 1936, the conflict between terrified peasants and angry workers, oppressed women and a backward Church, the illiterate fearing change and the intellectuals ashamed of being so behind the rest of Europe finally exploded.

It’s easy to judge history from a comfortable distance of decades and centuries. Today, it is obvious that the small individual tragedies of dispossessed peasants were a necessary and unavoidable price that had to be paid for progress. However, the desire to put off suffering which may bring rewards in a far away future is also very understandable.