Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Presented at the International Conference on Teaching History, Calcutta, August 2015.
For history teachers these are exciting times because the subject has been opened up to the study of culture, gender, food, clothing, music, language, environment and so on offering new perspectives instead of the dry periodized treatments of yesteryear. But in this context I have to say, that just as we spoke about saving history from government and political parties we also need to save it from the examination-system. Because the sad status of history in a school-going child’s scheme of things is the result of the way the history syllabus is usually transacted in the classroom. And that is why I had mentioned yesterday that pedagogy is of utmost importance to the issue of teaching history for peace.
It has been seen that history in the classroom is particularly susceptible to biased presentation. In extreme cases it is pure propaganda and there is a tendency to glorify a nation’s past and deify the currently favoured heroes. We cannot deny that selective history is a powerful tool in the politician’s hand.
To combat this, in our school we have made an attempt to teach media literacy to our students so that it would be second nature to them to question what they read in books or newspapers or on hoardings, what they watch on television or their computer screens and what they hear from anyone including their teachers. Dr. Christophe spoke about self-reflection in her keynote address yesterday—I feel this is very important for teachers. We teachers need to be aware of our own emotional baggage and biases—we need to keep an open mind and genuinely promote critical enquiry. Rather than knowing a lot of history perhaps the focus should be on getting students to think historically.
I wonder if you know what school students have to say about the objective of studying history. They have told me over the years, we learn history so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, by learning history we understand the present better, we develop a sense of time and sequence. These are usually spelt out in the introductory part of their text book. Ask them how many would want to read history just to know about the past of mankind, very few hands will go up. I don’t blame them. Most students find the subject boring and burdensome – and pointless. Of course I don’t encourage them by repeating Tolstoy’s comment that ‘Happy people have no history.’
One thing is disturbing. Rarely do you find a student who says that I read history to develop my thinking skills. In my opinion this is not one of the most important objectives but the most important of studying history. To emulate the historian by learning to access sources, to investigate closely, compare and weigh evidence and finally to interpret facts honestly are abilities that all history students must acquire.
I was fortunate to have interacted with Sam Wineburg who developed the programme, Reading like a Historian at Stanford University. He maintains that history should be discussion oriented. ‘You don’t read what is in front of you and accept it’, he says. Students must first be helped to distinguish between fact and fiction—and there is a lot of fiction in our history books—and between fact and opinion. I am afraid that teachers have to do so as well. Instead of getting students to study their text book from cover to cover and give stock answers to stock questions they must be taught to think like historians and look for the truth.
The West Bengal Council for Higher Secondary Education gives an excellent rationale for the History syllabus. It emphasizes that history is a process of enquiry not a collection of facts from the past; (In Bengal we can’t do without quoting Tagore. He said that the highest education is that which does not merely give information but makes our life in harmony with all existence.) it mentions that the study of history requires the student to understand how primary sources are used by historians and it has even included—very courageously—the debate of historians on the meaning of ‘modernization’. All very impressive. But what is the ground reality? After all, the devil is in the implementation.
Prof. Sethi spoke about ‘constructing history’ but in our grades and marks-obsessed system—the ‘construction’ is ready-made and is derived from guide books and help books. A potentially exciting subject is transformed into capsules that are swallowed and regurgitated. In the middle-school where there is no public examination, some teachers make the subject interesting by introducing role play, skits and film clippings. But we cannot just keep our students entertained in class—they must be exposed to different interpretations in an age-appropriate way. They must learn that the same event can be perceived differently by different people. Prof. Garga Chatterjee mentioned the hanging of Yakub Memon yesterday. I am sure there would be different opinions about it if I were to ask the audience in this room.
Coming back to the topic of this conference—Peace Education—I don’t think that to achieve this we should avoid talking about war and violence. Historical memory must not be manipulated. In fact those who believe in a socio-affective approach can use literature and the arts along with history to bring home the devastating effects of war. As Gemma of the University of Barcelona says ‘The knowledge of the past—sad, cruel, sometime tragic must act as a vaccine for avoiding war today.’
Even as I speak, we find around us a visible hardening of xenophobic, racist, parochial and communal attitudes. I am not too sure that the answer lies in a common history. (I enjoyed reading two books The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem Van Loon and A Little History of the World by E H Gombrich. Leave alone a common history of the subcontinent which would be a daunting proposition, I don’t know of a history of the world by an Asian writer.) Rather we should consider exposing students to multiple histories and different interpretations. Let them emulate historians and learn to study conflicting texts dispassionately but not without empathy. This in itself, I feel, will stop them from vicious 'othering' and we can hope that a whole new generation will grow up to believe that the only way to resolve conflict is by peaceful means – through dialogue, debate and discussion. 'Peace cannot be kept by force: it can only be achieved by understanding.' said Einstein.
But then we also have to deal with people’s lust for power and control. That is another story for another day.
History teaching and peace education is especially significant in a time of crisis. The question is, how can we build a shared future based on dialogue and peace? I have gained important insights from the policy paper date 9th September, 2013 by Gemma Tribo Traveria, University of Barcelona, Department of Education in social sciences.
Devi Kar is Director, Modern High School for Girls and Member, Advisory Board, History for Peace.