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Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič

History for Peace reaches Kurseong!


The brief, very briefly, was ‘Unbiased Histories’.

The participants—German language teachers from East/North East India and Bangladesh.

Very pleased to be invited by the Goethe Institut / Max Mueller Bhawan Kolkata as part of their 5th German Language Teachers Conference, Region East and North East India in association with Indo German Teachers Association—I couldn’t help wonder what exactly we would bring to an audience of language teachers that would keep them engaged and more important, be useful to their teaching practice!

Of course the initial trepidation vanished as soon as we discovered the workshop was to take place in Kurseong! All else simply fell into place helped very much with visions of the beautiful setting that awaited us there.

We were given practically the entire day, so we decided to split it up into two different workshops—one flowing seamlessly into another and yet addressing different issues.

The Holocaust seemed to be the most obvious choice as the core concept for both the workshops, since we were to address German language teachers. And under this umbrella, again given the audience, propaganda seemed to be the most relevant topic.

So after much thought we finalized on the following two concepts—'Reading Propaganda' to be facilitated by Tina Servaia, and 'Beyond Teaching' by myself.

We arrived in Kurseong early evening on Friday the 15th of November 2019. Throughout the beautiful drive from Bagdgora airport to the venue of the conference my phone was inundated with photographs from participating teachers—teachers I had not yet met!—who were also on their way to the venue from their respective destinations. Courtesy the most popular current tool of communication worldwide—‘WhatsApp’ group, a tool that has become increasingly powerful and dangerous, aiding and abetting the ‘propaganda machinery’ worldwide in ways that were unimaginable less than a decade back.

ccccArrivals and settling in done, the first evening was spent with a session of ice breaking games followed by an amazing concert by the Shillong based band Summersalt and socializing over dinner. The next morning began with mild stress as we discovered the sequence of our workshop had been changed. This involved a little bit of reworking before it was time to begin.

Reading Propaganda

Only the mob and the elite can be attracted by the momentum of totalitarianism itself. The masses have to be won by propaganda.

Hannah Arendt

In use since ancient times, propaganda has always served emperors and democratically elected leaders alike in controlling the world and people around them. Reams have been written and discussed about how the Nazis used and abused propaganda, perfecting it as a means to gain and consolidate control, and why people accepted and believed it. Yet, the propaganda wheel keeps turning. We live in times flooded with images and messages, whether from mainstream media, art and culture or political leaders—all of whom use some aspects of propaganda to convince us to accept what they are saying. It is more important than ever for us to read and decode propaganda, in order to retain the ability to think for ourselves.

ccccTina began her session with a detailed presentation on the history of the Holocaust with the core focus being on Hitler’s strategies and Nazi propaganda. Aided by an extremely thought provoking power point which began by touching upon propaganda during Ceasar’s time, through the Third Reich she brought the issue to the present day closer home through interactions and discussions. She explained in detail the concept of ‘Gleichschaltung’—forced coordination between institutions such as the Judiciary, education, the army, the church the civil services—which contributed to the tremendous success of Nazi Propaganda.

ccccLanguage is crucial for propaganda. It is used covertly, it is used overtly, it is used in the form of words, in the form of visuals, in the form of silence—through body language. What we read, what we hear, what we sense, what we view—all of this contributes towards our worldview without our even being conscious about it. Tina talked at length on the importance of recognizing propaganda and learning to analyse it. Having covered the theatrical aspect, we closed the session for coffee.

ccccPost-coffee break it was time to move to the practical aspect: the pedagogy that could be used in the classroom. Now this is something we have been focusing on at History for Peace for sometime now—bringing the IB curriculum pedagogy to teachers trained in the CBSC/ICSE/ISC methods. Essentially it means bringing enquiry and multi perspectives into the classroom and analyzing sources. Tina explained the principles and applications of ‘OPCVL’—origin, content, purpose, value and limitation.

ccccNext, the participants were divided into groups of five and given a set of Nazi Propaganda posters and a set of simple cropping tools which they were asked to use to analyse parts of the visuals used in the posters to decipher the message they were putting out. The involvement of the teachers in this exercise was a pleasure to encounter and soon all the groups were ready to present their analysis which ranged from what the colours used in the posters were saying, to the hidden messages they encountered in the layout and design of the posters and the strong symbolic representation of Nazi ideology in each one of the posters. Applying this exercise to the OPCVL pedagogy made it clear as crystal what the posters given to them stood for.

ccccWe ended the session with analyzing a recent image of the Indian Prime Minister picking up garbage on a beach in South India—an image that went viral in no time. The discussion that followed flowed into the lunch break with one group defending the image and the act photographed in it, and the other firmly placing it in the realm of propaganda.

ccccIt was then time for lunch, where more animated discussions continued, followed by the second workshop—Beyond Teaching—which for all practical purposes was a continuation of the morning in terms of the subject being used to discuss the role and agency of the teacher in the classroom.

Beyond ‘Teaching’

The essence of learning lies in enabling a person to think in forms that are analytical, logical and autonomous, not to mention creative.

—Romila Thapar

The proof of education, more than anything else, is humility. To possess the ability to break the mould that culture has cast for us; to have the ability to embrace a sense of adventure; to be willing to navigate uncharted territory, to risk revision of long-cherished traditions—this is what defines life affirming education.

ccccHow can teachers become enablers of life affirming education? How do we foster wonder, amazement, and curiosity? How do we create classrooms that nuture ideas and cultivate questioning—‘Questions that emerge from rational argument and logical thinking, tempered by recognition of the human condition’.

I began the session by reading the following quote:

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot by high school and college graduates.

So, I am suspicious of education.

My request is this:  Help your children become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

-from a letter sent every year by the Principal of a school, to its teachers, as quoted by educational psychologist Haim Ginott.

This proved to be effective in terms of continuing to keep the core subject intact and moving the focus to the individual dealing with not just this, but a score of other subjects and issues as an educator.

ccccCentral to all that is taught within our education system, is the ‘teacher’. The teacher who is looked up to, the teacher who is idolized, the teacher who can be a teacher yes, but also has the agency to be a philosopher, a guide, a wanderer who explores life with her students, a traveller who goes on many adventures across the world with his students and above all, the teacher who has the influence and possibility of shaping many futures.

ccccIt does not matter what you teach. What matters, is ‘how’ and what ‘else’ as educators you are able to bring into the classroom.

ccccI shared personal examples of the positive and negative impact that my teachers have had on me—some completely life changing. I invited the group to share similar personal stories from their time as school students.

ccccTo take this discussion deeper, we screened the film The Third Wave. Set in a high school in California, the film is a true story of a history teacher who conducted an experiment in his classroom to explain how the German population failed to see the Nazi regime for what it was and subscribed to its ideology.

ccccThe immediate initial reaction from the participants was mild. But the moment they realized this was a true account, the point we were trying to make sank in.

ccccOne of the primary necessities of ‘helping make our children more human’ is to develop critical thinking skills, develop empathy. The discussion that followed focused on this aspect of the teacher’s role, central to which was was the concept of the moral compass. That ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are very relative, yes, but when does one ask oneself what our moral compass is and what does it take to identify what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’?

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