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The dilemmas of teaching history

Differing interpretations of history sometimes begin early in school and fester for long, creating hatred and animosity spanning generations, partly because every country reads its history differently. While the `truth' about history needs sustainedattempts at understanding, it is equally important to establish how much of the past needs to be taught, says ANURADHA KUMAR.

A LITTLE bit of history was recently laid to rest in a corner of South Africa. Saartjie Baartman, had left her native land for Europe more than 192 years ago, where she was sold to an animal trainer, paraded before people as a circus freak — the "Hottentot Venus". When she died in Paris, her remains were bottled up, her skeleton wired and displayed in a French museum. But for her descendants — nomadic Khoisan people of southern Africa — death is never the end, the soul of a person who had wandered into a land of strangers had to simply return home. Only after long wrangling, an agreement was reached between France and South Africa. Saartjie's remains were flown home, where she was given a wooden coffin and a memorial service.

The end of apartheid has seen the beginning of a new history that has prompted a painful reassessment of how science has perpetuated racial stereotypes; and of the time when the colonising West deemed the indigenous people inferior, worthy only of scientific study. Unlike the story of Saartjie Baartman, however, there are other places where history refuses to be laid to rest. Every country reads its history differently and those with differing perspectives of their history have little chance of agreeing on what happened. Every differing view claims to be the "true" interpretation of where things went wrong.

Such differing interpretations of history sometimes begin early in school and fester for a long while, breeding a hatred and animosity spanning generations. In West Asia, following the Oslo accord in 1993, the Palestinian Authority decided to teach Israeli literature in its schools and universities, after the Israelis too decided to include in the curriculum the writings of the Palestinian poet, Mahmud Darwish. But by the autumn of 2000, things had soured. A report by an American NGO claimed that a book designed for Palestinian 11 year olds was leading to "anti-Semitic indoctrination". Various omissions in other textbooks were seen as problematic. Maps in certain textbooks for standard six clearly showed the West Bank and Gaza Strip but left the position of Israel undefined. Last December, the World Bank reallocated the money destined for textbooks and for teacher training to other activities. Palestinians for their part say that well unto the 1960s Israeli textbooks too were full of racist clichés towards goyim (non-Jews) and totally failed to take into account the existence of a Palestinian people. The present conflict needs to be seen in this context of deep differences of perception and experience. To break new ground, activists have stepped up efforts to encourage cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli teachers — to re-educate people and teach them to accept and tolerate each other.

An enduring historical and cultural gulf has long existed between Ireland and the British Northern Ireland. Between the two nations, different versions of what happened in the past are still used as political weapons. However, attempts are being made to ease the decades long conflict — beginning from the way history is taught. Now with the Good Friday agreement in place, education within Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, will now have to play a greater part in contributing to a lasting accord.

There are already schemes in place. In memory of two boys, victims of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) bomb in 1993, a project was set up linking schools in England, Northern Ireland and Ireland, with pupils getting to know more about life in each others' schools and homes. Besides, there have been informal cross-community projects developed by pupils themselves. In another scheme, the European Studies Project, more than 200 secondary schools in Ireland and the United Kingdom have worked together on projects addressing different cultural perspectives on history and geography. It has been suggested that setting up a joint curriculum in such contentious areas as history would help Ireland's competing traditions to find common ground.

History and textbooks teaching it have also led to vexed relations between Japan and its neighbours in the Asian mainland — South Korea and China. It began with the introduction of a controversial textbook in three Tokyo schools. The book glosses over Japanese wartime atrocities during World War II — Japanese germ-warfare experiments in China and the forced prostitution of several hundred thousand women. Other Japanese textbooks have also played down the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, in which as many as 300,000 Chinese civilians were killed by Japanese troops.

Under Japanese occupation Koreans were banned from using their own language in schools, forced to adopt Japanese names, and pledge allegiance to the Japanese emperor. Most of the estimated 200,000 Asian women forced to work as sex slaves for the Japanese military were Korean. South Korea has demanded 35 revisions to the book but Japan has agreed to make only two. In retaliation, South Korea scaled back cultural and military contacts and threatened to boycott educational exchanges with Japan. Anti-Japanese feeling is also showing signs of life among the younger generation. In a survey in a local children's newspaper — conducted soon after the controversial history books were approved by the Japanese education ministry — showed that more than 68 per cent of respondents felt that Japan was the most hostile country to South Korea.

As events in our own country too bear out, political changes often set off seismic shifts in historical perspective. In Cambodia, the history of the Khmer Rouge years when two million people died between 1975 and 1979 was removed from the school history curriculum after the 1991 Paris peace accord began a process of reconciliation between Cambodia's warring factions — from which Khmer Rouge soon withdrew. But many advocate that this period needs to be taught. The victory of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led coalition in Bangladesh prompted another shift in that country's history. The new Government is seen to be allergic to the name of Mujibur Rahman, the man seen by many as that country's liberator. The holidays marking Mujib's birth and death anniversaries have been cancelled. The government is planning to rewrite the history of the Liberation War by portraying Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's husband, who was an officer in the Pakistan Army in 1971, as its leader.

While the "truth" about history needs sustained attempts at understanding, it is equally important, on the other hand, to establish how much of the past needs to be taught. The real problem is the difficulty experienced by rapidly changing societies in turning its mind to anything other than the present and recent past. British Universities are concerned that history students are more fascinated with 20th Century dictators and events — such as Hitler and the Holocaust — that they are unprepared for broader historical study. Students in the United States too are more likely to recognise teenage cartoon characters, Beavis and Butthead than historical figures such as George Washington. A survey of students at 55 leading universities, including Harvard and Princeton, found a large majority failing a basic test in American history.

September 11 has reawakened the U.S.

History experts are agreed that the teaching of the subject needs to be re-thought — the subject based on much the same range of written sources has got old-fashioned. While, on one hand, as schools in the U.S. and Europe have recently realised, the attacks of September 11 brought home the need to understand various cultures; there is need, on the other to make history more interesting and innovative.

Brilliant scholarship apart, there have been isolated efforts that seek to generate this interest. Certain schools in Russia have begun to teach children a new subject called "Roots", along with old forgotten folklore, traditions and dialects. Two Russian families recently took part in an unusual experiment — by living and working in a reconstructed 18th Century village, near Moscow. The houses are made of wood and have been constructed using period techniques. Local authorities now hope that tourists will flock to take a glimpse of Russian rural history brought to life. The villagers will look after their own cattle, make their own dairy produce, grow and preserve their own crops and do their own haymaking just as in the 18th Century. The houses will be heated with a traditional Russian wood-burning stove, known as a pechka. A Welsh group calling itself the "Samhain" group, with members aged between seven and 62 act out famous battle scenes from the Middle Ages, when they gather at Loggerheads Country Park in Mold. It is part of a heritage group's plans to promote local history through re-enactment of days gone by.

Similar efforts can ensure survival of cultures, long suppressed. As the European Union expands and mainstream languages of English and French become more dominant the Irish are concerned that their language Gaelic would soon be a thing of the past. Gaelic's decline began in the 17th and 18th Centuries when Ireland's relationship with England worsened but was rescued from near extinction when a cultural revival began in the early 20th Century. Interest in the language has increased tremendously. In Dublin alone, the number of Gaelic schools has grown from 50 to around 200. Speaking Irish today is considered fashionable — Telefisna Cathair is the country's all Irish television station set up in 1997.

Despite such communitarian efforts, the dilemma remains — how to preserve "little histories" against a wider need to integrate into a wider, global world. And this might spark off the quest for a uniform historical truth that the world can agree on. When Microsoft's Encarta Encyclopedia was first published in 1993, it was criticised as being too American. Ironically, attempts to rectify this and to localise content led to diametrically opposing accusations — each version, compiled separately for each of Encarta's separate nine editions, reflected different national tastes and offered a different historical "truth". The truth thus remains tricky to establish. In the British version, Waterloo was depicted as an iconic victory, while in French history, the stress is on its aftermath — the abdication of Napoleon. That there is no argument over who won, does not imply a distortion of reality, it allows differing cultural views of one event. Yet with electronic dissemination of information, the differences that always existed are now more obvious.

As the Nietzschean view has it, history is merely a set of stories; that what really happened is barely verifiable. This view is a useful counterpoint to the notion that history is synonymous with progress: that the world moved from darkness to light, despotism to liberalism, etc. Historians still seek to impose linearity and causality on events that are frequently characterised by chaos. Sometimes history's effects still remain elusive. In a remark also often attributed to Mao Zedong, Chou En-Lai said it was a little too early to comment when asked what he thought the effects of the French revolution had been. The remark helps prove the point — history stands on shifting sands, each generation looking at "it" in their own specific manner, to suit their own purposes.

Anuradha Kumar is Assistant Editor, Economic and Political Weekly

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