Why history matters so much

Its importance in shaping our political ethos is undiminished, but the subject has no place in the competitive education culture

Published - August 24, 2018 12:15 am IST

Books. Sketchy style.

Books. Sketchy style.

Why is history such an important school subject? And why does it not receive the importance it deserves? These two were among the major questions debated at a conference recently held in Kolkata. A brief answer to the second question is that history cannot compete with science subjects in the market that shapes and controls education today. Yet, history is an important subject because it moulds the outlook of the younger generation. By turning the past into a narrative, history creates a public ethos and influences culture. From architecture to film, and from ancient India to Partition, the Kolkata conference, organised by the History for Peace initiative of the Seagull Foundation for the Arts, covered a broad canvas to trace the complex relationship between history and culture.

I can think of few other gatherings where school teachers got a chance to discuss their classroom experience with scholars of history and culture. The outcome was a richer understanding of the constraints that a poorly functioning system of education places on a society’s capacity to cope with its present difficulties and imagine sustainable solutions.

Debates over texts

The history syllabus and textbooks have been at the heart of a deep political controversy in India. India is not alone in this respect. No country in the world is immune to debates about the past and how it should be presented to school children. To take just two instances, America’s discomfort with Hiroshima and Britain’s discomfort with Gandhi continue to be reflected in their school syllabi.

The main reason why portrayal of the past in school textbooks arouses controversy is that a publicly shared past imparts a collective memory and identity. Textbooks are viewed as officially approved documents — even if they are privately produced and have no official sanction — and are therefore believed to be associated with state power. Significantly, they do shape the perceptions of the young because children are impressionable. Children introduced to a certain version of the past at school acquire a disposition which can be politically mobilised in the future.

Debates over school textbooks seldom take into account the significance of curricular design and the preparation of a syllabus. When criticising poor quality textbooks, people do not recognise that the problem may be at the level of syllabus and curriculum. Similarly, when good textbooks are appreciated, people seldom realise the effort required in redesigning the curriculum and syllabus.

The new history textbooks brought out by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) from 2006 onwards are a case in point. They have survived the change of government. One reason for their longevity is their professional quality. They have no single authors. Teams of eminent historians worked through deliberation and dialogue, first drafting a new syllabus and then the text itself. They represent the spirit of the National Curriculum Framework, 2005, which is still in place, which gives precedence to inquiry through direct exposure to evidence. The textbooks based on it do not narrate a long story. Instead, they enable children to explore different, often divergent, themes, such as lives of peasants and women, architectural styles, etc. Archival material is cited as evidence, and debates among historians are highlighted to demonstrate the difficulties of interpreting evidence.

Problem of perception

These books mark a major step forward in the teaching of history, but older ways of teaching and conventional textbooks have persisted. As a presentation at the Kolkata conference pointed out, the history teacher at school is often someone who has not studied history or enjoyed it. So, despite a shift in historiography, old problems continue to affect the system. One of these is the perception that history is all about wars, kings and dates. Another is the tenacity of dividing India’s past into three long chunks: ancient, medieval and modern. These categories flatten out the complexity and richness of India’s history, wasting the opportunity of studying it with the aim of arousing curiosity and imparting tools of inquiry. The examination system also reinforces flat perceptions by asking questions that are best answered with the help of guidebooks. The 2005 curricular revolution has made little impact on this wider scene.

In most States, the use of history to build collective memory and identity continues. Assam-like situations suggest that education is not perceived as a means of resolving a problem. The fear that incoming migrants would push the regional language into minority status or hurt the State’s cultural identity shows how poor the State’s trust in education is.

On the contrary, schools are actively engaged in creating a delusion of an ongoing collective ‘self’ which thrives on a monolithic ‘other’. Teachers of social sciences work in an atmosphere of relentless regimentation of children’s bodies, thoughts and emotions. Fear pervades life at school, taking many forms. It forms the core of the intensely competitive environment that our schools, including the most reputed ones, love to sustain. In that environment, the teacher’s attempt to make children reflective and sensitive to details gets drowned in the din of everyday life.

The importance of history

Schooling adds a dimension to culture that we do not quite understand. As public institutions, schools carry many burdens the society is not always aware of. Government schools cope with bureaucratic norms and private schools cope with parental pressure to maintain heightened competition. The natural sciences bear the brunt of this pressure. For the growing middle class, including the vast multitude of first-generation educated, science and mathematics represent the golden route to high income jobs in medicine and engineering, including information technology. The social sciences and humanities do not figure in this landscape, yet they also suffer the consequences of the command that the entrance test culture wields over schools.

Although history has no place in the competitive culture of education, its importance in shaping the larger political ethos of the country remains undiminished. Children depend on adults to learn about the past, and that is what makes history the most challenging school subject. Ironically, poorly taught history matters even more than well-taught history, simply because when history does not arouse curiosity or impart the tools of analysis, it creates an emotional barrier for further inquiry.

Krishna Kumar is a former director of the NCERT

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