The History Exam
I am Shutruk-Nahunte, King of Anshand and Susa, sovereign of the land of Elam. By the command of Inshushinak, I destroyed Sippar, took the stele of Niran-Sin, and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my God, Inshushinak. Shutruk-Nahunte, 1158 B.C.
– The Emperor’s Club
Great ambition, and conquest without contribution, is without significance.
I’ve always had a problem with history, because I was too engrossed with names. History class is memory work, so I took to memorizing names and achievements. Names worked a lot like word association: this name had something to do with this concept. This name had something to do with this event.
It made it easy to pass pop quizzes and trivia competitions and to pass multiple-choice exams, but it was torture for essay-type examinations. For my Philippine History professor, it meant hell on Earth.
“Don’t worry, you’ll pass that exam, easy,” my friend said. “You’re a good writer, and it’s an essay-type exam.” I felt rather confident, bullshitting my way through the essay. I went about my business dropping names, creating epigraphs out of quotes, relating everything to the present, and doing everything I can to write an impressive-sounding essay. History should have happened this way. I forgot the most important thing: the history itself.
Needless to say, I got a failing grade. Like a man on a mission, I went up to the faculty room to demand an explanation from my professor.
“Why do you think these names exist?” she asked me.
“I don’t know, they’re in the books, they must have done something important.”
“Lots of people did something important, but why must it be them that we remember?” She gave me a thoughtful look as she pored over my essay, with its long sentences written in neat cursive.
I gave it some thought, and I guess my teacher caught me in too deep right there.
We often trivialize history on the basis of memorizing names and dates. We take history for granted by making it nothing more than a catalog of past events, when it never is; today is only made possible by yesterday, and we make tomorrow by doing what we do today. It’s a collective effort, but people stand out because of what they do, and what they contribute to history.
History is a harsh judge because it is always written; because there are people who do, and there are people who don’t do at all. History remembers; it never forgets, because we write it every day. We remember certain people because of what they contributed to history. It may sound offensive and trivializing to forget other historical achivements in favor of another more relevant and important one, but that’s how the way things change. Because what they did mattered. What they did changed things, and so should we.
Most of the time, we don’t. We end up blaming the past, forgetting that history is written in the present. The future can only be what we do today.
Where’s your name? Where’s your quote? It was as if my teacher was challenging me to defend my arguments by names and through quotes. I really can’t; those names were there in times I didn’t have to live through. Those quotes were there way before I used them for convenience’s sake. The only important thing I’m doing then was to take a history exam, and I had to trivialize it by trivializing history in the process.
“Now you know why you failed?” I knew the answer right then and there: I failed because I took history for granted.
I took another exam to redeem myself, but with the reminder that time – real life in the real world – doesn’t give second chances to those who do not make history. They dally about in the background, or end up erecting monuments for themselves that – like Shutruk Nahunte – become one among way too many afterthoughts.