What Front Lawns Can Teach Us About The Value Of Studying History

As I wrote about previously, we consider a writer or a theory to be interesting not because it is true, but because it challenges a long held assumption or reveals some unexpected connection that you did not consider before.

I came across a great example of this in Homo Deus, the follow up to Yuval Noah Harari’s smash hit best seller - Sapiens. Overall I wasn’t as much a fan of Homo Deus, but it still had some real gems, and this is one of them.

In just a few paragraphs Harari uses the example of front lawns to show that the value of studying history is not simply in knowing the facts of what has happened in the past. Studying history is so important because it allows you to understand how the values and systems we take for granted came to be, and imagine alternatives that might have been the case instead.

In the West it is so common to associate wealth and social status with a nice lawn that we don’t even notice how arbitrary that is. As Harari points out, there’s no front lawn in the Forbidden City in Beijing or at the Athenian Acropolis. We didn’t have to end up with these ingrained opinions and associations.

Once you realise that there are no fixed set of values, you free yourself to imagine alternatives for the future. And given the fact that so many beliefs and social dynamics are rooted in the very distant past, perhaps we have an obligation to be proactive about choosing which ones to cultivate now, so that future generations are shaped in the right way.

This, essentially, is the summary of Homo Deus as a whole. We have embraced a liberal / humanist / capitalist society and from our point of view it’s hard to see how any other option could possibly be the ‘right’ one. By examining our history, we realise that nothing is fixed and we have the power, if we want, to shape the values of the future if we chose to do so.

Here is an excerpt from Homo Deus about the history of the front lawn to make the point clear:

The History of the Front Lawn

"A young couple building a new home for themselves may ask the architect for a nice lawn in the front yard. Why a lawn? ‘Because lawns are beautiful,’ the couple might explain. But why do they think so? It has a history behind it.

   Stone Age hunter-gatherers did not cultivate grass at the entrance to their caves. No green meadow welcomed the visitors to the Athenian Acropolis, the Roman Capitol, the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem or the Forbidden City in Beijing. The idea of nurturing a lawn at the entrance to private residences and public buildings was born in the castles of French and English aristocrats in the late Middle Ages. In the early modern age this habit struck deep roots, and became the trademark of nobility.

   Well kept lawns demanded land and a lot of work, particularly in the days before lawnmowers and automatic water sprinklers. In exchange, they produce nothing of value. You can’t even graze animals on them, because they would eat and trample the grass. Poor peasants could not afford wasting precious land or time on lawns. The neat turf at the entrance to chateaux was accordingly a status symbol nobody could fake. It boldly proclaimed to every passerby: ‘I am so rich and powerful, and I have so many acres and serfs, that I can afford this green extravaganza.’ The bigger and neater the lawn, the more powerful the dynasty. If you came to visit a duke and saw that his lawn was in bad shape, you knew he was in trouble.

   The precious lawn was often the setting for important celebrations and social events, and at all other times was strictly off-limits. To this day, in countless palaces, government buildings and public venues a stern sign commands people to ‘Keep off the grass’. In my former Oxford college the entire quad was formed of a large, attractive lawn, on which we were allowed to walk or sit on only one day a year. On any other day, woe to the poor student whose foot desecrated the holy turf.

   Royal palaces and ducal chateaux turned the lawn into a symbol of authority. When in the late modern period kings were toppled and dukes were guillotined, the new presidents and prime ministers kept the lawns. Parliaments, supreme courts, presidential residences and other public buildings increasingly proclaimed their power in row upon row of neat green blades.

   Humans thereby came to identify lawns with political power, social status and economic wealth. No wonder that in the nineteenth century the rising bourgeoisie enthusiastically adopted the lawn. At first only bankers, lawyers and industrialists could afford such luxuries at their private residences. Yet when the Industrial Revolution broadened the middle class and gave rise to the lawnmower and then the automatic sprinkler, millions of families could suddenly afford a home turf. In American suburbia a spick-and-span lawn switched from being a rich person’s luxury into a middle-class necessity.

The lawn has therefore spread far and wide, and is now set to conquer even the heart of the Muslim world. Qatar’s newly built Museum of Islamic Art is flanked by magnificent lawns that hark back to Louis XIV’s Versailles much more than to Haroun al-Rashid’s Baghdad. They were designed and constructed by an American company, and their more than 100,000 square metres of grass — in the midst of the Arabian desert — require a stupendous amount of fresh water each day to stay green. Meanwhile, in the suburbs of Doha and Dubai, middle-class families pride themselves on their lawns. If it were not for the white robes and black hijabs, you could easily think you were in the Midwest rather than the Middle East.

   Having read this short history of the lawn, when you now come to plan your dream house you might think twice about having a lawn in the front yard. You are of course still free to do it but you are also free to shake off the cultural cargo bequeathed to you by European dukes, capitalist moguls and the Simpsons and imagine for yourself a Japanese rock garden, or some altogether new creation. This is the best reason to learn history: not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies. Of course this is not total freedom — we cannot avoid being shaped by the past. But some freedom is better than none." [Pages 70-4 of Homo Sapiens].

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If you're interested in this sort of thing, I would strongly recommend checking out both Homo Deus and Harari's previous book Sapiens. Both are unbelievably well written and engrossing. You'll most likely not agree with everything, but as I mentioned at the beginning - a book isn't interesting because it's true, it's interesting because it challenges your assumptions. Harari without doubt does that on almost every page.