Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič



Updated: Nov 23, 2020

This talk was held in August, 2018, as part of the 4th annual History for Peace teaching history conference.

‘We tell our students about the mistakes made in the past and how those mistakes can be corrected now.’

‘Not every conflict is worth discussing or analysing. If you keep talking about conflicts with young children, religious conflicts or caste conflicts, you keep those alive.’

‘Do you want a history class to become a battleground or a sulking ground?’

‘We speak about the conflicts in such a way that the students, in their future, can correct the mistakes made by the previous generation.’

‘I really like to focus on good things in history, the achievements of great people, for instance, Jhansi ki rani.’

‘As a history teacher, I do not want to sulk in front of my students. No matter what you do, you can never ever make a 14/15-year-old mind interested in history. It is boring to the core. I myself find it so dull and lifeless.’

These were the responses of a group of about 300 history teachers when they were responding to one question: Why teach history to school students? These teachers had travelled from different parts of the country to Delhi and I interacted with them in batches of 50. My goal was to help them appreciate the simple aims of teaching history according to the National Curriculum Framework of 2005. I noticed one common feature across all the batches—for all of them, teaching history rested upon the idea of identifying and correcting mistakes made in the past. I tried to challenge them to think how corrections could be made or even attempted in the present, in a time when the concerned people of those circumstances no longer existed. But the teachers got rattled and angry, and burst into incoherent, long speeches on religion, caste and associated conflicts.

The main point of those outbursts were the need to respect and maintain Indian culture without finding faults in order to bury the tensions rather than repeat them in front of a new generation. Despite my repeated efforts, the discussion could not be conducted in a coherent way nor taken to its conclusion. So I had to abandon it. I had to abandon it in all the six batches sooner or later. What the teachers were not willing to tolerate was that history can be considered as an account of the forces and forms of social life. They did not like the idea that history is also a study of the process of becoming a society and its mode of organization. They simply could not agree that the aim of the history teacher is to enable the young learners to see—in their imaginations—the forces which favour and allow people’s cooperation or conflicts. Nor could they see their own role in using information to construct a vivid picture of how and why people did something, how they thought, how they achieved their successes or came to their failures. For them, history did not represent humanity’s engagement with various forces, issues or nature. Neither did it involve advances in civilization that involved the use of intelligence and cooperation.

Notwithstanding their initial refusals and setbacks, I made another attempt to develop a wider understanding about the resources required to teach history. I wanted teachers to know that the pedagogic experience in a history classroom should be consistent with the nature and character of knowledge and history. They had already hinted to me at the very beginning that, no matter what one does, students cannot be persuaded to like history. ‘The subject is such, after all.’ Pushed to think about resources other than the prescribed textbooks, their responses went to the other extreme, to guide books, but remained focused on their own telling. The ‘teaching by telling’ frame was so strongly enshrined in their pedagogic glory that not one of them even uttered the word ‘museum’. So I brought in this missing entity by asking them to read a short reflective piece by psychologist Bruno Bettelheim in which he reflects on his childhood experiences of visiting several museums in Vienna, although never for any ‘great’ purpose. The value of museums, he writes, is to stimulate a child’s or adolescent’s imagination, to arouse their curiosity so that they may feel the need to think more deeply about what they are exposed to and, more importantly, to give young people a feeling of awe for various things in the world. The idea brought the group to the second point of strong disagreement—history involves wondering,  about the past for the sake of it, being excited about the past for the sake of it.

Again, the teachers could not agree with me. The more I tried, the more assertive they grew in their denials. Their main argument was that if you allow every learner to wonder, to think, to imagine, to theorize, to draw linkages, you cannot maintain a coherent narrative. History learning must teach them to remember and appreciate one narrative, a singular, coherent narrative. They were absolutely clear that it was not so much about the lack of resources or visits to the museums—their reliance on their own telling to teach history was absolutely impermeable. Challenged to the last bit as a teacher/educator, I decided to focus my energies to understand, to situate their ideas in their context, in their circumstances, because, after all, this is what history trains us to be or do. Though I studied it only till Class 10, I grew fairly conscious of understanding things in their context and circumstances.

So, who is a teacher teaching at school and who is teaching history at school? In order to understand the absence of historical temper from the discourse in these workshops that Professor Nair discussed yesterday, it became really important for me understand the sociology of a teacher, to understand who was in front of me as a history teacher.  Many people who study history to its advanced stages have confessed that they do not actually engage with schools. Even though they are interested in schools, they do not really do much work with schoolteachers or with schools. That is true for economists, mathematicians and physicists as well. School becomes a ‘lowly’ entity to engage with for academicians and scholars. But the school engages you year after year, supplying you with the raw material—you teach the person whom the school or the school- teacher has already taught. At the university level, we work with students whom the school teachers send to us. So who comes to school to teach history becomes a very pertinent and relevant issue. This is where I grew interested in the academic biography of those 300 teachers who had challenged all my notions and made sure that I did not achieve even a single goal I had set for myself. What I found from their academic biographies was that 47 per cent of those teachers actually studied sciences at undergraduate levels, one had also served as a science TGT (Trained Graduate Teacher), had taught from classes 6 to 10, and, later, for career advancement or for several other compulsions, done a Master’s degree in history through correspondence in order to teach at the senior level. And this was quite a large number.

Then, the second category emerged—teachers who were victims of the system and the principals. This category, comprising 34 per cent, said it was trained in geography or political science, subjects radically different from history. These teachers acknowledged that they were not trained in the subject but that neither the principal nor the system paid any heed to that. The prevalent theory is: If you are trained in any of the social sciences, you are automatically considered eligible to teach history, political science and geography. The geography people felt more miserable about themselves than those from political science, and a good 12 per cent of them mentioned that they studied history because they were weak students in school in terms of academic performance. Seven per cent of the teachers studied history by choice or out of the larger choices of the stream—history was a compulsory subject in the social sciences or arts stream.

These patterns were consistent with what I have been observing during my interactions with students in the B.Ed. programme at Delhi University. Some of you might be aware that there have been serious reforms in education, especially in teacher education for secondary and senior secondary levels. The B.Ed. programme has been strengthened in terms of its curriculum components and duration. It has become a two-year programme. I have been teaching a course called Knowledge, Discipline and School Subjects in the new programme, in which students pursue investigative ideas such as ‘every discipline has a distinctive structure of knowledge and different ways of constructing knowledge’,‘the habits of the mind’, ‘specific data collection and interpretation skills for every discipline’ and so on. Thus every discipline poses distinct pedagogic demands on its teachers. In the process, the B.Ed. students also reflect on their choice of subject—why they studied a particular subject, how did it become their choice and what impact did that choice have on their abilities to engage in the theoretical structure of their subjects and the status of every discipline in school, hierarchy and society in general. To this purpose, they write  reflective essays identifying factors that allow them to engage with the discipline which helps form the axis of their pedagogy and to identity those factors in the school curriculum. I have analysed about 300 of these essays, written over a period of three years. I am presenting to you now only the analysis of essays written by those who will or who have already become history teachers.

The first theme that emerged in these essays was that it was never a personal choice. What they studied or what they opted to study in Class 11 was on the basis of the score in the public examination conducted in Class 10. The first 10 years of schooling could not enable them to identify their passions, their inclination or their preferences—an external assessment settled it for them. This is true for every subject, not just history or English or Hindi.

The second theme was that popular perceptions such as ‘intelligent people study the sciences’ shape their emotions about their own intelligence. Even if they chose not to study the sciences and opted for history or political science or the arts, they were convinced that they were engaging with inferior fields of knowledge and were ‘less’ intelligent themselves.

The third theme was that the strugglers of the science subjects found respite in history at the undergraduate level. Somehow they carried on with the sciences in the secondary and senior secondary levels. And when they’d had enough, they shifted to history. Or, the college admission processes were such that they opted for economics or English or history or political science, and my students landed up in history—English being the top choice for the shifters. Now, this shift implies a very personalized sense of failure—an inability to engage with knowledge that enjoys top status in the school hierarchy, i.e. the sciences. So, from facts or formula application, logical and tightly structured reasoning and exact expression in the sciences to probable truth, emphasis on coherence in the narrative and richness in meaning and establishing facts along with meaning in history. Here you are establishing facts while in the sciences you are given the facts. This shift is a demanding one to reconcile with, and requires a considerable engagement on the part of the teacher at the undergraduate programme to help the students cope with it. What I found in the case of my students is that most of them had not reconciled to this and hence were confused and continued to think that the sciences were much better!

The fourth theme was that a large number of them felt frustrated with the density of knowledge at the higher levels in history. They started disliking history, some of them dropped out of the Master’s programme or did not pursue a Master’s at all, but they are going to become history teachers. They came to do B.Ed. because they have had enough of history, they cannot study history any further. This is where I realized that how sorry the state of higher education was. Who is the victim in all this? The victim is the school because, now, this higher education system sends those candidates to schools as teachers. Candidates who dislike a subject but will become the representatives of it—they do not like this subject they will be teaching but are taking the role of inducting younger people in the community who still cherish and appreciate the knowledge that history offers.

There were only 4 per cent who enjoyed history even though they also came to it after facing failures in other fields. The schoolteachers’ data I presented earlier and the B.Ed. students’ data together establish the criticality of the missing link between the school history and the higher-education history. If we analyse it carefully and try to find what it is that teachers are not able to do in terms of learning history, we will have to think about learning in the way that the famous psychologist Jerome Bruner has. According to Bruner, learning involves two kinds of transfers: one is the direct transfer of a specific applicability of tasks that are similar to the originally learnt task—so you learn to calculate simple interest, compound interest and you keep calculating it all your life. That is a very simple transfer. Two, learning a general idea that includes transfers of principles and attitudes. This type of transfer is at the heart of the educational process and involves the continued broadening and deepening of knowledge in terms of basic and general ideas. This is the transfer that most suits the character of history as a discipline and its teaching. This is exactly what our teachers had not internalized.

The National Curriculum Framework 2005 emphasizes the need to let the young learner experience how a historian thinks, what the habits of the mind are that a historian develops and employs. The narratives of teachers I have presented to you reveal that we have not done enough to enable a schoolteacher in that role. This conference is about the idea of culture—why is it that the idea of culture that schoolteachers engage with and entertain in their minds is rather banal and lacks complexity? The ability of teachers to engage with complex and layered ideas of secularism, nationalism or even gender is yet to be developed. How can history teaching contribute to peace unless the history teacher is at home with the ideas or constructs of secularism or equality? If these continue to feel like borrowed constructs that have no significant place or contribution to make in our society, the teachers’ own ability to contribute or to engage the next generation in such ideas stands compromised. The time has more than come for us to say the opposite of what is said on such stages or platforms: that we are sorry that we do not engage in schools. The time has come to say that we better engage with schools, we better engage with schoolteachers proactively to claim integrity to our own discipline. It is about knowledge in history, after all. As Professor Thapar pointed out—in most schools and colleges, the students of history are still learning the subject in the same way it was taught one, or probably two, generations ago despite the advancements in technology and ever-increasing exposure. Unless the academicians in the universities reach out or engage with the schools and schoolteachers, the knowledge base will not develop. The schoolteacher of history will continue to feel burdened by the aspirations of the historian and history will continue to be perceived as an ‘inferior’ subject which is not the business of intelligent people—as was very evident in the reflective essays written by my students. If we really want young people to be excited about history and we want them to become history teachers capable of promoting peace, the schoolteacher is going to need our active and constant support.

Question-and-Answer Session

Question. I just wanted to talk about two issues. One, to add to your concern about who becomes a history teacher. It is very gendered, on top of everything else. Two: for the past two-three years, I have been conducting a six-month module called ‘School, Society and Socialization’ with teachers who will be joining schools and teaching upto Classes 2 or 3, maybe 4. And this whole issue of socialization comes as a revelation to them. From what I know, it is not discussed in the B.Ed. programme at all. And, really, the beginning of it is for teachers to understand their own sense of self, understand their own socialization and then take an objective view of who they are and why they think the way they do. And that it is not simply or only to do with religion or secularism or community. That link between school and society that socialization provides, that is a circular link that keeps coming back through the teachers’ own childhoods to when they are working with children in the classroom. I think you have touched upon that in many ways without really naming it, but if you could comment on that a little bit further.

Gupta. First, I very purposefully chose not to bring in gender because anything that is done via correspondence is favoured by women. I did not want to get into that. The second point about socialization—it is not true that this is not taught at the B.Ed. level. Even in the unreformed one-year B.Ed. programme, there was always such a course. Maybe it had different names in different parts of the country—‘Basic issues in educational theory’, ‘Ideas in education’, but socialization did indeed constitute a significant part of it. But, yes, a teacher’s/educator’s own imagination on how to teach socialization—that is a different issue. And it is not just coming from sociology. Socialization also falls in the realm of psychology. So, you must have a very balanced view on socialization from both sociological and psychological perspectives. Unless you have applied Sudhir Kakar’s theories in an Indian classroom, you cannot really develop a very scientific understanding of socialization. And it takes a lot. I, for that matter, represent a very privileged group of teachers trained in Delhi University in B.El.Ed programme in which there was a one-year-long practicum called ‘self-development in workshop’. We spent one year continuously reflecting and introspecting on our own socialization. We would have day-long sessions on even jokes—who do we joke about, which are the communities that we joke about, why are there certain kinds of jokes about women? So, socialization cannot be taught as one topic—it is one of the biggest challenges the teacher faces, and teachers/educators or any undergraduate curriculum or even school classrooms should face it as a challenge in every field of knowledge. Even with the sciences, for that matter. When you are developing the so-called scientific temper, you are actually challenging what you have learnt at home about many things. Thus, socialization cannot be a topic-based agenda. It has to go on, throughout school, and I would say some part of higher education too must spend its energy challenging people to constantly think about their own thought process and how they relate with others.

Sometimes, by writing or creating a book or by doing a one-day or a three-day workshop, we think we have done enough, but, the truth is: we are not able to do enough because it requires engagement by many teachers. When science teachers, history teachers, political science teachers—when all of them challenge these notions together, only then can we begin. History teachers, I feel, are often more self-critical because a lot of stereotypes seep in into looking at the past. They constantly ask themselves: Why do I think like this? And, more often than not, the answer is: Because my parents have told me this community’s people are like this. I found out that as young as four-year-old children have prejudices about other communities. Because the parents had said so. So, all teachers have to engage, but history teachers particularly, because they can challenge the source of ideas or the rootedness of those stereotypes.

Question. I am a schoolteacher and you have sent me into deep depression. Do you feel that your sample is OK or that it’s skewed? Have you never come across teachers who are genuinely interested in history or people who do not find history boring? Because, otherwise, this is shocking!

Gupta. I had an idea that in this audience the story would be different—because we are in the state of West Bengal, where history enjoys a special status (to quote my ex-student who is sitting here. She is from Delhi University and she is now studying history, and according to her, ‘When teachers teach history here, there is a spark in their eyes!’ Clearly, Delhi teachers did not have that spark in their eyes while teaching history. So, I know West Bengal is a land of history. I also took some guidance from my supervisor, Professor Krishna Kumar, on why history is associated with West Bengal even more than it is with Delhi University and JNU. I would request you to recollect what he told you—that, despite all the intellectual ethos and the glory that universities have enjoyed, the state government is impermeable. The history textbooks are what they are everywhere. So, yes, your point about history teachers—I have definitely come across a few who enjoy their subject. But those teachers who tell me they do not enjoy the subject or that they can never make it interesting—they are more worrisome. I wouldn’t want to step out to find a compensatory data. I would rather like to think