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Bias and Hate in History Textbook Narratives - Qasim Aslam


Updated: Nov 23, 2020

This presentation highlights the role of history education (specifically school textbooks) in shaping the ideological fabric of our present and the future and the need for innovation in the way history is taught. 

The underlying problem that we’re trying to solve is that of biased textbook history systematically breeding intolerance in young minds that will go on to shape our future. There is a huge gap in what academics are writing and what students in their formative years are consuming. Teachers are used to methods of instruction that perpetuate intolerance and curb critical thinking. A large part of the population doesn’t make it to universities to be able to understand the problem; and the part that does—their ideologies have already been shaped in their formative years.


Just to quote some examples: hate material in textbooks for the public schools in Punjab increased from 45 lines in 2009 to 122 lines in 2012. The Urdu grammar book for classes 9 and 10 and the Pakistan Studies book for class 9 had no chapters containing hate material in 2009, while they had three chapters each by 2012.  Also, social studies for class 8 had one and the Urdu book none in 2009 while they had 4 and 3 chapters containing hate content in 2012 respectively.

'The discipline of history bears the brunt of the burden of nation building’—Professor Krishna Kumar.


While it’s important for future generations to learn about their past, the subject matter and method of instruction of history have both been constrained by biased textbooks replete with hate content that has systematically increased in proportion over the years despite government resolutions to the contrary.


Education, over the decades, has evolved as one of the more profitable businesses, thereby confining teachers to methods that merely improve student grades rather than promote critical thinking. While the method of instruction curbs critical thinking, textbooks perpetuate intolerance in the minds of our young.


History is one discipline that, depending on its use, can be used to foster either intolerance and hate or tolerance arrived at through critical thinking and discussion.


In the first instant, history is used not only to tell the story of a nation but also to shape its identity but from a one-sided ‘popular’ perspective. This is fundamentally at odds with the proverbial enemy trying to do the same, and eventually leads to hate and intolerance for the ‘other’.


In the second instant, history can be used to promote tolerance and critical thinking. Even under the best of circumstances, history can’t be mere facts. Even when people have been witness to events, they tend to recall them differently. It’s not only human error or emotion or the vagaries of memory that plays a part in this but also their own mental stereotypes and biases—all of these shape their individual versions of the story. As does ‘which side’ they were on at the time.


This leads to one of history’s fundamental ideas—that of multiple perspectives. Since we are focusing on the history of the Indian subcontinent at the moment, I would like to mention two important examples from this region, both pertaining to Partition—the Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947; and the Partition of Bengal in 1905. Both events led to happiness for one group and bitterness for the other. In both cases, one group perceived the events as freedom from oppression while the other as the violation of their ‘mother’ country.


This awareness of the reality of multiple perspectives can contribute to tolerance and critical thinking.


We feel that the Indian subcontinent, due to high levels of intolerance, is not ready for a unified system of textbooks, i.e. the same textbooks being taught from in both countries. At the same time, we believe in taking the first step, and using an intermediary approach whereby each side is introduced to the other’s point of view and both sides are encouraged to think. This should, we hope, lead to an acceptance of the reality that there are other perspectives and experiences which are, arguably, just as valid.


The History Project (THP) is filling this gap by creating materials for students in their formative years.  Our primary aim is to teach empathy and critical thinking by juxtaposing contrasting national-textbook history narratives, and creating learning experiences around them. The History Project approach is based on the simple and powerful idea of introducing teachers and students to multiple narratives of the same story (textbook history from both sides of the border). This is what is packaged into educational experiences that encourage all stakeholders to confront the existence of parallel realities, and to question their pre-existing dogmas before forming opinions; in the process, everyone is also learning to question ‘facts’.


In order to objectively gauge whether or not our interventions have an impact, we require an evaluation framework. As part of THP’s evaluative framework, we have developed interventions that are not only used to train teachers to this powerful concept but also to provide them with tangible programmes to grapple with this concept over a longer period and to disseminate it further by leading the six-week THP Course at their academic institution.


This entire effort is carried out in parallel to an impact-analysis study led by THP team that collects data before, during and after the interventions, and presents reports to the school, the teachers and to the parents on the two primary variables that THP’s impact rests upon: (Increase in) Tolerance, and Critical Thinking.


Through this standardised model of engagement for the short, mid and longer term, we’ve developed a series of indicators that allow us to demonstrate success. Ultimately, we aspire for THP graduates (teachers and students) to become active builders of a more tolerant generation, working to significantly and positively transform their communities. To this end, we empower our graduates to:

  1. Become part of a network of THP graduates (teachers and students), within Pakistan, and across borders in India and other countries where THP community exists.

  2. Take the lead in taking THP programs to other educational institutions with the same overarching objectives

  3. Openly express the universal truth that there are good and bad people in every religion, society and community

There are three main actors in the ecosystem of education, and THP program has interventions that target each of them.

  1. Creating THP books that embody multiple textbook history perspectives to leverage the contrast as a tool for education;

  2. Introducing teachers to this powerful concept and training them on how to deliver this valuable educational experience to students.

  3. A six-session THP course led by THP-trained teachers and workshop specialists.

What are THP books? Revolving around periods of (arguably) immense historical significance, the THP publications juxtapose conflicting popular narratives around shared historical events/processes/personalities and present to each community the other side’s point of view.


The Indian and Pakistani narratives of events that took place during British rule and during the Partition are one example of a THP publication.


Even though the idea was appreciated by academics and schools alike, we realised that, on their own, the publications were not a tangible enough product for schools to begin work. So we decided to complement them with different modes of engagement.


We plan to reach a hundred schools across India and Pakistan with the THP course. We also intend to create a network of teachers who have access to THP publications, i.e. they have information regarding both sides of the story. The network of THP-trained teachers can also communicate with one another and not only share best teaching practices but also befriend and learn from one another.


Our potential long-term goals include Cambridge eventually offering comparative histories as a course; coming up with new content, i.e. publications on Israel/Palestine, Pakistan/Bangladesh, etc.; devising new ways to engage with the content, i.e. through arts and drama; and expanding THP to different geographies, such as Israel/Palestine, with the same objectives—promoting tolerance and critical thinking. To keep encouraging young minds to think for themselves before they are brainwashed by the system.


Qasim Aslam is the co-founder of The History Project Society, an initiative that aims to innovate the way history is taught by highlighting the biases inculcated through partial narratives in textbooks, which breed a specific brand of patriotism. Qasim is Laureate Global Fellow (2014) with the Sylvan Laureate Foundation, and a member of the British Council’s Global Changemakers. He has been working on international peace initiatives with Seeds of Peace for the past 14 years, and is currently serving on the board of their local chapter in Pakistan.


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