Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič



Updated: Nov 28, 2020

This talk was presented on August 4, 2018 as part of the fourth annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of Culture, Calcutta.

Can history contribute to peace? is part of the bigger question: Can education contribute to peace? The record is not particularly clear. Some of the most brutal experiences of the twentieth century originated from highly educated countries of the world. If you look at South Asia: the first country to expand its education system and make it universal became the site of the worst civil strife. I am, of course, referring to Sri Lanka. And if you look at the world at large, the most aggressive country in the world, which does not mind intervening anywhere with messages of democracy and bombs to back them, is widely believed to have the world’s most advanced system of modern education. So, education, in a generic sense, does not necessarily promise peace. A number of philosophers have guided us into recognizing the distinction between education as an idea and a system. The idea or concept of education is full of promise for humanity, but this concept must wait for historical circumstances to manifest in a system. And to look for that idea in a historical vacuum is somewhat silly. Jiddu Krishnamurti, Bertrand Russell, Maria Montessori—there is a whole chain of peace thinkers in the twentieth century to whom one can go to seek some clarity about this larger question in which I am placing this more limited question, which is the title of this talk today—Can history contribute to peace?

Obviously, when I ask this question, I mean the history in education or the history which people learn through schools and colleges. Can that history contribute to peace? That is the provocative, stimulating and promising question we will engage with before returning to this broader question. Our education in history begins during childhood and has long-term consequences. Indeed, all experiences of childhood have long-term consequences for individual human life as well as the collective life of a society, nation, humanity and so on. Therefore, it is important to ask: What does history impart to children? What does it impart to youth? As we ponder over these questions, we should also situate ourselves in the modern world, a world which is somewhat unique compared to any previous time in history. In this world, the modern idea of education is an idea that not only promises but also has nearly fulfilled universality. It is only in our present-day world that we carry this expectation that education will, as a system, expand so much that it will include everyone.The idea of an inclusive and fully universalized education system is really an idea of a certain kind of unprecedented value. We don’t quite know what it means—how it will affect knowledge, whether it will create commonalities of knowledge that permeate individual understandings. Or will education serve as a vast machinery of the regimentation of the mind which will insist on certain common parameters? In no part of the world does the history of education answer these questions for us.

The experience of expanded education systems is very new, even more so in South Asia. In India, it is so new that we are still fighting it—the right to education is subject to so many court cases, and the Right to Education Act has already been amended twice. India’s discomfort with this idea is quite apparent. The only country which has some experience of this idea is Sri Lanka, and even it has not quite been able to cope with the consequences of a universalized education system at the elementary level. So we are looking at uncharted territory. And a particularly complex territory because, under the regime of modernity, education expands under the auspices of the state. It is the state which takes charge. Because of which, processes of acculturation or socialization become extremely complex. The term socialization has a very special meaning in educational theory. The classic book by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality, reminds us that socialization is no unitary process, nor is it something that happens in the same fashion throughout childhood. They have broadly divided it into (i) an emotionally intense period of ‘primary socialization’, and (ii) the subsequent period where the school comes in—secondary socialization. Primary socialization, the basis of numerous studies in fields of psychology and social anthropology, covers the first three to four years of life—the crucial years during which the child gets imprinted with a number of essential beliefs, attitudes and anchors of the mind. The child is not in a position to question, and is situated within the family, at home. A central debate in educational theory remains: Can secondary socialization make an impact on primary socialization? Can schools teach to question what has been learnt and internalized before the school-going age? The question remains unanswered by research and is worthy of introspection. It is an important question especially for history, because history, as a discipline, does not quite acknowledge how children learn.

The historical development of cognitive psychology through the twentieth century has not quite made its mark on the teaching of history. Philosopher John Dewey remained quite unclear whether history should be taught at all to children and at what age. The best he conceded was in one of his earlier books that perhaps we can introduce history—or a bit of history, essentially as a kind of sociology—by age 14 or 16. The learning of history requires a more mature mind, and Dewey’s work preceded that of [Jean] Piaget and [Lev] Vygotsky. What is a mature mind? A formally thinking mind, a logical or mathematically equipped mind which is able to reflect on itself. When Dewey was writing, all these ideas were way ahead in the history of psychology and its growth. The age he recommended, i.e. 16 years, seems to be the point at which one might expect some degree of normative achievement of some of the skills required for an engagement with history. We can ask: How does time sense develop in children? Well, it develops more slowly than the sense of space and perspective and so on. Therefore, when one looks at, let us say, Class 4 in Maharashtra as the time to learn about Shivaji as a historical hero in a textbook—the reason it comes at Class 4, before any social science has been introduced, one wonders what it really achieves at that point. Or, even in class 6, when ancient India is introduced—one wonders where the children’s time sense is at this point. Are they able to engage with their parents’ lives by then? Can they really imagine time that long ago so as to be able to engage with these issues?

With the help of archaeology, history in Class 6 becomes perhaps a bit more palpable. Where contemporary sense-making begins is actually after the historian has completed his or her continuous compulsive song which must start with the ancient and come to the modern. And it comes only in Class 8. History as a discipline is organized with its own academic rationalism, its own history and it leaves very little room for the school-curriculum designer or teachers. Now, having said all these things, I wish to come to the most difficult element of early socialization and cognitive development in children, and that has to do with the development of self-identity. Self-identity is a very paradoxical concept because there is an individual self and there is also a collective self. Primary socialization already sows the roots of collective socialization with those compulsory forms of identity which one recognizes after a few more years—that I cannot change my caste or my religion easily and I am, before I know who I am (which I will know around adolescence or after it), already a Hindu or a Muslim, I am already a Kshatriya or a Brahman and so on and so forth. Primary socialization leaves very little room for the non-acceptance of a collective identity. The school builds on it and then offers a slightly wider collective identity—wider than caste, religion, language—the national identity. That is the school’s essential project under the modern state: to sow the seeds of citizenship. Social sciences are used quite consciously in all countries of the world to create loyal citizenship—citizens who are aware of and are proud of the nation.

Educational debates around this subject are extremely useful, interesting and difficult and we will return to some of them. About 20 years ago, I became acutely conscious of this issue of a collective identity imparted by the schools. I had an almost epiphanic moment when I crossed the Wagah Border by bus. It was 1999. I had spent a year already with history textbooks of India and Pakistan. From both these countries, I had chosen a reasonable sample which I thought would be valid, which I thought represented their diversity, and I felt I was quite aware of the broad differences by then. I was going to meet children in Pakistan, their teachers and some historians and I thought I would do the same thing on this side of the border when I came back. But, when our bus—after elaborate checks—crossed the border, I suddenly noticed a small group of boys playing cricket on the right side of the road that was going to lead to Lahore in less than an hour. And it struck me that these boys have, in their mind, a different construction of the past from what I carry from my childhood, or even the boys that I now know in Delhi have. The sight of those boys playing cricket prompted me into thinking about what they might or might not know about something that I already knew. And I suddenly felt a serious inadequacy or unpreparedness on my part for this project. I felt I should have chosen the anthropological mode rather than an educational theory mode, because we were looking at nothing less than a different culture. As Indians, we probably feel it is similar. We like to emphasize the similarities of culture, having suffered together through Partition. But I felt I was in a foreign country and I must know how those boys thought and that I must start from scratch: But where was scratch? Was it 1947? Was it 1971? Where were we then in 1999?

That experience made me both curious and humble, as though I were an explorer of a new territory of the mind. Ultimately, I wrote two books on this subject: the first was published in 2001, titled Prejudice and Pride: School Histories of the Freedom Struggles of India and Pakistan, because both sides of the border share prejudice as well as pride. Six years later, I felt again that I had not done a good enough job of putting together all that I wanted to say, so I wrote another book called Battle for Peace (2007). In the first book, my attempt had been to assemble an analytical narrative of the Indian historian which finds different manifestations in different kinds of textbooks. A similar attempt was made on the Pakistani side. I had made several—you might say—methodological choices in order to be able to cut through the various layers of internal differences, and differences across—to be able to arrive at a discourse—an analysis of how this remarkable mutual hostility can be read into what children read. Now, this sentence, of course, is very un-nuanced because there is no such uniform thing as ‘the child’ or ‘children’—there are different children. Who is reading which textbook, which teachers are teaching them, what kind of school and where—all of these are terribly important questions (and we will return to them in a moment), because the textbook itself is simply an artefact. If you find it in a national museum, you ought to look at it in a way that will acknowledge its own history or the compulsion of circumstances under which it was written. Or, whether it was written by a single author or several authors and so on. These are all very intriguing questions—where is it going to be used and how is it going to be used? My attempt was to find, through my analysis, what I call ‘master narratives’ of India and Pakistan.

And I also wanted to pick up what I call ‘memory posters’ with which the past is held in the mind as a visual, during childhood or early youth. With the help of these two major devices, I looked at the 90-year period from 1857 to 1947. It goes without saying that both master narratives are hurtling towards freedom, which was also Partition. So, they are teleological, of course. But, interestingly enough, between 1857 and roughly 1929, they remain almost reconcilable narratives, and you can even see the similar names among the people who inhabit those narratives. Sometimes you feel quite pleased to see that this part of the past was not as divided and not as mutually incompatible as one might think. But when you hit 1930, and the last 17 years to freedom and Partition, you recognize how the narrative picks up pace and becomes irreconcilably divergent. Now it is no longer possible to see parallels— now, there are two different directions in which the narratives move. One towards a sense of celebration of freedom from colonial rule as well as remorse and sadness for the tragedy of Partition; the other towards the happiness of having separated and, much less importantly, arriving at freedom through that separation. These two emotions are very difficult to convey. In the course of my research, I met many Pakistani teachers, students in their early teens—particularly several girls at Lahore Grammar School—and those encounters left with me very poignant memories about how they approached the subject. Quite often, I think about the things they said: ‘Why we left you in 1947’ and ‘Why, 70 years later, we still have little evidence that it was worth it.’ This feeling is articulated repeatedly—sometimes as a subtext, sometimes as an articulation—but it is a very strong feeling. When you go deeper into the subtext and apply more advanced techniques of finding meaning, the Pakistani history narrative can be summarized thus: ‘This is why we left’. It is a narrative of justification. That justification includes a sense of guilt and yet a sense that this much guilt is worth harbouring, but ‘Let’s not feel too guilty because the cause was worth it!’ The Indian narrative, on the other hand, is not a ‘why’ narrative but a ‘how’ and a ‘who’ narrative. How did we lose the project and who was responsible for it? That is how the Indian narrative manages across the last three years from 1944 to 1947, by focusing repeatedly on: How did things go that wrong? Yes, freedom was won, but how did Partition occur?

So, we end up with these phenomena of two projects of socializing the young. One is, of course, a secular agenda of socialization into the modern Indian identity. The idea of India as a country that respects its diversity. From this narrative’s perspective, the ‘other’ was, and is, not secular and we feel very sorely about that. That the ‘other’ is deeply religious and, in the parlance accepted in the history academia and generally in the academia in English, communal (in Hindi, saampradaayik), renders Pakistan and its creation an illegitimate result of the nationalist struggle. And if Pakistan hardens further, as it did after 1971, when its nation-building project and its identity agenda moved west-wards as Aijaz Ahmad has pointed out, then the two become even more incompatible—Pakistan wanting now to be fully recognized as an Islamic state and socializing its children through what is no more history but Pakistan Studies. It is the enfeebled and divided Pakistan of 1971 which paved the way for this new incompatibility with the Indian project of socialization of children into believing that we are morally more accommodative and therefore somewhat justifiably claiming superiority as a modern nation compared to our neighbour whose nation-building project was communal to begin with and became even more so after 1971. From the Pakistani side, the incompatibility is no less with the Indian project because Pakistan’s agenda of socializing its young is imprinted with the idea that what India believes about itself is a myth and therefore it need not be taken too seriously; that India is hypocritical; that India would like to project to the world a secular identity but, sooner or later, the truth will out. This ominous message continues to reverberate across South Asia and is currently reverberating evermore loudly as we wait for 2019.

This problem between the two nations is not played out only in history classrooms. By the way, Partition and freedom are the last chapters of history taught in schools. History stops at 1947—political science takes care of the rest, but we do not go beyond that. This neighbourly hostility is a defining influence on the ethos of our schools, classrooms, media, especially cinema, television, parliament, its televised versions and so on. The noise of life surrounds education. This noise includes great actors who can excel in love, friendship as well as terrible, bloody enmity, great plots, memories of wars—and there are plenty. There are big wars, smaller wars and experimental wars that we have had with Pakistan and, therefore, militaristic memory-building is constantly going on around the project of ‘educating everyone’ through a universalized system of education. So, education does not operate in isolation and this cliché, that education is part of this larger reality, often makes us forget that education is a major part of modern nation-building. This idea of a universalized system aimed at citizenship education is an idea that has to be looked beyond things like what is in the curriculum or the textbook, or how it is being taught, etc. All these questions of ‘quality’ have to be situated in the ethos within which schools function. And, when I say schools, I mean all schools, including private ones.


Schooling as a process, schools as a modern institution— how do they function? Numerous studies in the world and in India will tell you that schools are able to function with the help of regimentation. Regimentation of the child’s body and mind and heart are essential devices through which the project of education reaches its goals. How does regimentation happen? We are aware of this word ‘regimentation’ because of its application in military, police and so on, but regimentation in schools is actually no less interesting and compelling. Compliance, as a general rule is something that every child must learn by the time the nursery years are over. It also means compliance of the body, which the French sociologist [Pierre] Bourdieu put under ‘habitus’—a certain kind of culture which includes the body, thoughts, behaviour, an enveloping culture the child must take on and internalize in order to become a successful pupil. It is an essential condition for any school education to work, and, if you are a schoolteacher, you know how important it is to make a group of 30 or 40 children work together.

I realize that you need certain kinds of habitus creation, especially when the classroom is diverse. I make these points without the urge to criticize and purely with the desire to analyse. So, the higher you go in the hierarchy of schools, you find that they distinguish themselves in terms of their effectiveness and quality by using another word—almost a cousin of regimentation—‘discipline’. The higher the school is in terms of its status in the market, the greater its dependence will be on its capacity to say that its children are disciplined, that they can be relied on to behave in certain ways. By the time they finish school, the stamp of the school will be so deeply imprinted, the students will carry it through the rest of their life and they will remember ‘I am from such-and-such school!’ They will even be able to spot another person in a crowd without having to ask which school they are from! This is what Bourdieu described as habitus—that we notice institutional memories manifested in our bodies and not just in our language (which all great institutions claim they can shape). In addition to this idea of compliance and discipline, another important regimenting device that is often ignored—you might use the word ‘elite’ here to refer to these schools because they use it more successfully and more purposefully—is the ability to give an answer quickly. Unthinking quickness is an aspect of the regimentation that the so- called good schools actually inculcate. It is a positive kind of regimentation you might say, because it assists the child in becoming increasingly competitive—you only need to sit in a Class 9 classroom at any of the famous schools of Calcutta or Delhi. The teacher is sometimes not able to finish the question and the hands have already gone up. This unthinking quickness and the desire to be given a chance before anyone else is a consequence of long-standing socialization value which does not quite match the expectation of critical enquiry which requires reflection, requires taking a few seconds or minutes before you answer a question. That is something that this regimentation cannot create. Answers are given on the assumption that the question does not require thought—it only requires recall and, therefore, is a preparation of the fourth great source of regimentation: fear. Fear of the examination where so much has to be recalled under great pressure, that preparation, right from nursery to the next 13–14 years, may prove inadequate.

Therefore, you live in perpetual fear and you follow the beaten path of how to approach an examination. Drill, coaching, all of these are accessories of good regimentation in schools. And the higher you go in the hierarchy of grades, the more you approach those accessories as supplements to your learning at school. This broader picture, the history teacher has to keep in mind. History, when we look at history as a means of socializing the mind into critical enquiry as we would ideally like, as Professor Nair pointed out yesterday, must take place in this ethos which has so many diverse and powerful devices of regimentation. While doing my Indo-Pak research, I was acutely aware of some of these aspects of school life and was able to ask history teachers to some extent, both in Pakistan and in India, how they cope with these various aspects of school life. Most of them acknowledged that they really had no control over them. In fact, in the earlier classes (6, 7 and 8), quite often the history teacher is not somebody who is necessarily from the field of history. It is only after Class 9 and sometimes after Class 11 that history becomes an optional subject, that you can guarantee that the child will be taught by somebody who has studied history. Therefore, the question, whether teaching of history by itself can create reflexivity or open- ness of mind in an ethos otherwise driven towards regimentation, is a question that needs to be pondered on with a considerable awareness of the difficulties involved.

The other major aspect that history deals with, in its contribution to nation-building, is participation in a national narrative. In the modern world, all history narratives are essentially, at the school level, national narratives. As many presentations have pointed out, these are the narratives of how things unfolded in the territory of the nation. The nation-building project needs to be encountered without excessive sensitivity. I say that because, at present, the nationalist project has been hijacked, vitiated by the political circumstances under which we, as Indians, are suffering. It was being vitiated in any case in Pakistan 70 years ago. So what can we do without it? Can nation-building be devoid of political nationalism or engage with political nationalism in creative ways? Can we engage in Rabindranath Tagore’s dream of being Indians without being nationalists? Is it possible?

All these questions bring us to the present, where we worry about school textbooks and put on a pedestal what the NCERT has done. The very first word of the acronym NCERT is ‘national’. When we look at these new text- books created in 2006, 2007 and 2008 for all levels, for different subjects including history, we tend to feel quite happy. Especially those of us engaging with English-medium schools—we are people who are a part of a national elite of sorts—we like to think that we have done a good job. I feel especially happy because I was in the NCERT during those fortuitous years. The story of these textbooks makes us think ‘Yes, we can!’

Now, as we proceed in this section of the talk where I want to bring in those broader questions, questions of peace, of education, can education bring peace in the world and so on, I want to dwell on a particular story. Both India and Pakistan—I learnt during my project and subsequently from other experiences—are enormously diverse countries. India’s diversity is something we cannot not quite capture in a museum. The National Crafts Museum, a small museum near Pragati Maidan in Delhi, displays from time to time how diverse we are, unlike the National Museum. You will have to visit state museums like the Bihar Museum in Patna or the museum in Tamil Nadu or elsewhere to be reminded and told how diverse we are. In Pakistan now, there is a museum called Lok Virsa Museum, a creation of enormous financial investment. About 20 kilometres from Islamabad, it is dedicated to the women of Pakistan. As you enter the first gallery, you encounter the Vedas, the Buddha and various other lay