Updated: Nov 23, 2020
I wish to state at the outset that what you will hear from me may not sound original to you given the presentations and discussions we have had in the past one-and-a-half days (1) of the conference on the pedagogy of history at schools in India. However, what you may find unusual and significant is that a philosopher/thinker’s insistence on freedom, enquiry and fearlessness has had a direct impact on the teaching methodology at the schools that are run by the Foundation that is named after him. The philosopher/thinker is Jiddu Krishnamurti.
Krishnamurti’s emphasis on freedom and questioning has particular relevance for the discipline of history, which, as we are aware, is contentious, controversial and often politicised. It is widely acknowledged that the present times are difficult for professional historians (2) in India with the ruling establishment at the Centre resorting to any and every means available to it to distort the past and impose a version of Indian history that suits and serves its political ideology and agenda (3). This situation aggravates the chronic state of history instruction at schools where it is reduced to clusters and series of dates, names and events that students are expected to memorize, reproduce in tests/examinations and forget them as soon as the tests/examinations are concluded.
There is further onslaught on the social sciences, particularly history, from a globalizing, capitalist economy that makes students aver that history as a discipline, and as it is taught at schools, is irrelevant for their personal lives and their professional futures.
Against this background I will outline my thoughts and observations on how history is taught/learned/understood at The School (a school managed by the Krishnamurti Foundation, in Chennai) at the ISC (classes 11 & 12) level and how Krishnamurti’s educational philosophy and the engagement with the past in a professional manner reinforce each other. I will point to some ways in which Krishnamurti’s mandate to the schools overseen by the Foundation that they produce intelligent, sensitive, reflective, fearless individuals enables a critical approach to history.
Historian Romila Thapar in her interview with the social activist Teesta Setalvad observes
‘[H]istory is not a body of information consisting of dates and events. History is an understanding of the past. I would underline again and again the word “understanding” the past. It is not even what was the truth. It is not even what was correct. We don’t know . . . We never know what the absolute truth was about the past (4) [. . .] The purpose of education is that you have an intelligent approach to how you are going to treat knowledge’ [. . .] The historian’s job is to teach the child how to think critically. To think analytically and critically, debate is absolutely essential.’ (5)
Krishnamurti’s approach to knowledge is not dissimilar from that of Thapar:
By learning I do not mean the mere cultivation of memory or the accumulation of knowledge, but the capacity to think clearly . . . , to start from facts and not from beliefs and ideals (6) [. . .] In the process of imparting knowledge, the educator has to invite discussion and encourage the students to inquire and think independently. (7)
In a video entitled ‘What is the Significance of History in the Education of the Young’ (8), Krishnamurti defines history as the ‘story of mankind’ (much like Thapar in the interview, where she remarks that ‘history is the biography of the world that surrounds us’) in the learning of which both the teacher and the student understand themselves. This approach to learning in general and history in particular suggests that history-teaching/learning is not a monologue in which the teacher declares the truths of the past and the student accepts and assimilates them. It is, on the contrary, a dialogue where established knowledge is questioned, challenged and critiqued, and, in the process, new knowledge is created and new understanding arrived at. This intellectual framework corresponds with the historian’s stance that historical explanations change over time with the discovery of new material and new readings of existing evidence/sources.
The professional historian’s craft and Krishnamurti’s intention for the young thus converge on several counts. While the professional historian’s project is to help the student develop an understanding of the past through a critical study of reliable evidence, logical interpretations and causal explanations Krishnamurti, whose worldview drew extensively on a broad study of the past and keen observation of the events around the world during his lifetime, emphasised the acquiring of a knowledge of the world one lives in, of the past and of oneself through questioning: ‘[T]o understand what part education can play in the present world crisis, we must understand (emphasis mine) how the crisis has come into being . . . we must first investigate how the present crisis has come into being.’ (9)
It is necessary here to stress that there perhaps is no such thing as a Krishnamurti way of, or a Krishnamurti model for teaching history. Krishnamurti himself did not subscribe to or propound any particular theory of history, although his view of it appears to be one that is characterized by conflict: ‘Obviously, the present crisis is the result of wrong values—wrong values in man’s relationship to property, to people, and to ideas’.(10)
Krishnamurti was sharply critical of modern education systems across the world and saw in them an attempt at producing unthinking machine-like beings who would serve an industrialising, capitalist society and lead compartmentalised lives: ‘Our present education is geared to industrialisation and war, its principal aim being to develop efficiency; and we are caught in this machine of ruthless competition and mutual destruction.’(11) In their place he advocated a system of education that produced ‘free, intelligent, integrated individuals.’
The teaching of history at The School at the ISC level is designed in such a manner that it meets the objective of maintaining the standards of the professional historian while being conscious of the wider educational philosophy of Krishnamurti. Consequently, it is guided by very specific intentions that include the creation of critical self-awareness, the development of analytical skills, the fostering of global outlooks and the cultivation of empathy and concern for the social and the physical worlds.
The first few sessions of Class 11 are devoted to exploring questions such as: What is history, what is it not and why study history. The following are the standard practices adhered to at the ISC level:
prescription/use only of books written by professional historians
regular assignment of readings and discussions/debates around the arguments presented in them
exposure to a variety of sources (for example, historical, semi-historical films, documentaries, recordings of lectures, field trips, seminars, newspaper/magazine articles and reports)
exposure to multiple interpretations and explanations of historical events (for example, the Partition of India in 1947)
exposure to contemporary debates on history writing and developments in historical methods, particularly in and of India
establishment of connections between the social and political issues of the past and the present
comparative analyses of ideologies/events (for example, communism and Nazism; communal consciousness and nationalist consciousness; caste and race; caste discrimination and racism/apartheid; and women’s movements in India and the United States)
distinguishing between claim and fact, between assertion and argument (for example, the claim that Indus culture was Aryan or the Vedic culture was pre-Harappan despite the lack of support from existing archaeological and linguistic sources; the assertion that Sanskrit is the ‘mother’ of all Indian languages while South Indian languages belong to a different [Dravidian] language family); and distinguishing between myth and history (for example, the nationalist narrative/ideology that Indians were always non-violent or that Hinduism is tolerant—contrasting these myths with historical facts about prolonged warfare among Indian rulers and, of the persecution of Buddhists and Jains in early/medieval north India and medieval south India by ‘Hindu’ rulers).
In the classroom, focus is on building a firm knowledge base specific to the curriculum and cultivating skills such as the ability to recapitulate the main arguments presented in a text, to articulate one’s ideas/arguments precisely, and to identify biases, silences, suppressions and implicit positions of historical actors as well as historians. For example, while discussing the socioreligious reform movements of nineteenth-century India, students are urged to look critically at the agenda of the reformers who were predominantly from the upper castes and whose concerns were limited to issues that affected their class/caste, such as women’s education, sati and widow remarriage, with little or no attention paid to the question of caste.
Similarly, students’ attention is drawn to how school history textbooks equate modern Indian history with the freedom movement and exclude other movements (such as the labour movement, the non-Brahmin movement, the peasant movement), how they remain silent on the complicity of historically privileged sections of Indian society in the colonial subjugation of India; and how Muslim communalism is exaggerated while Hindu communalism is glossed over, particularly while accounting for the Partition of India in 1947.
As an outcome of this approach to history teaching/learning, students come to understand, over time, that history is not a collection of facts about the past nor a linear progression—things do not always change for the better with the passage of time. That knowledge of the past is essential in order to understand the present. That all human beings, regardless of their identities, are products of history (12). That human consciousness is shaped by its past and that, in order to change anything, whether consciousness or conditions, one has to be knowledgeable about the past.
The historian’s approach to the past and Krishnamurti’s concern for humanity are thus two sides of the same coin. They have much in common except that Krishnamurti, unlike the professional historian, exhorts humans to go beyond history, to transcend inherited identities, theories and thoughts and cultivate a sense of self that identifies with everything around it: [E]ducation is the understanding of oneself, for it is within each one of us that the whole of existence is gathered.’(13)
I do not want to give the impression nor make the claim that The School has perfected history teaching. What I can however state with certainty is that history as a body of knowledge and as an academic discipline is not experienced as dull and intellectually unexciting by students, especially at the ISC level.
Given that an overwhelming majority come from privileged socioeconomic—caste and class—backgrounds, a critical approach to the study and understanding of the past is likely to find them caught by surprise at first, since it makes them conscious of their social location and nudges them to observe themselves and question their own identities. They may feel perturbed, or even be offended, to realise that their worldview is defined by their social position. But over time one can sense a certain sensitivity towards and concern for the wider world emerging in their outlook. This awareness, sensitivity and concern sometimes influences their career choices, and translates into social action where professional success/careers may assume less significance and the world/humanity takes precedence.
I would like to conclude by asking why a leisurely (in the sense of absence of worries over exams and marks) and critical engagement with the past should be possible predominantly in elite alternative schools. I disagree with the position that the two—a critical (and therefore time-consuming) approach to history, and preparation for examinations—do not or cannot coexist. On the contrary, if school history teachers focus on understanding the past from multiple perspectives rather than on memorising facts (on the grounds of completing the syllabus in time) performing well in the final/Board examination will be a mere byproduct—the mastery of multiple viewpoints in history learning will have to subsume factual content.
A critical approach to teaching/learning history is long overdue, particularly in a country like India where very few can distinguish between myth and history, where history is easily and frequently used to settle political scores and to serve the real or imagined needs of the present. One of the speakers at the conference has pointed out that rarely do students say that they read history to develop their thinking skills.
Maybe it is time that situation changed.
I am grateful to the Seagull Foundation for the Arts for providing me with the opportunity to share my thoughts on how history is sought to be understood at a Krishnamurti Foundation School; to the delegates and participants of the conference from whose knowledge and observations this paper has benefitted; and to Dr Radhika Herzberger for reading and commenting on this paper.
I use the term professional historian to refer to those who are engaged seriously in historical research and in producing a reliable knowledge of the past. The term is also meant to distinguish such persons from those who use history for explicit political purposes without having engaged personally or professionally in any kind of serious historical research or writing.
This is demonstrated unequivocally through several of the measures taken by the Central Government over the past one year or so, the most prominent being the appointment of a person who is not recognized for his professional competence and accomplishments as the chair of the Indian Council for Historical Research. There are other examples, such as Dinanath Batra’s attempts at rewriting school history textbooks in Gujarat in order to glorify an early Indian past, and the efforts to prove that India was highly technologically advanced technologically in ancient times at the 102nd session of the Indian Science Congress, Mumbai, in January 2015. See also newspaper reports that the NCERT is on its way to rewriting its school history textbooks in order to address ‘mistakes and controversial issues’ in those currently in use (Times News Network, 24 June, 2015). The attempt at rewriting NCERT history textbooks is, however, not new—it had alraedy been attempted by the BJP in the early years of this millennium when it led the NDA government.
Special show on Communalism Combat and Hillele TV (21 February 2015).
To Parents and Teachers (Chennai: Krishnamurti Foundation India, 2014), p. 2.
Ibid., p. 3
Ojai, California, 6 May 1980.
Educating the Educator (Chennai: Krishnamurti Foundation India, 2013), p. 6; emphasis added.
Education and the Significance of Life, p. 13.
‘Our thoughts and responses are conditioned by the values which society, of which we are a part, has imposed upon us’—Education and the Significance of Life, p. 56.
Ibid., p. 17
Devika has read history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, University of Pennsylvania and Syracuse University. Her research interests have been in the intellectual and social history of modern India. She has taught at the undergraduate level in both United States and India, and has been teaching history at Krishnamurti schools for the last 13 years.