The limited role of textbooks in history

The history taught and communicated in schools should be more than just about individual ‘doers’ and their actions

Updated - April 26, 2023 12:05 pm IST

Published - April 26, 2023 12:55 am IST

“It is widely believed that our understanding of history comes from textbooks. This is not entirely the case” Photo: ncert.nic.in

“It is widely believed that our understanding of history comes from textbooks. This is not entirely the case” Photo: ncert.nic.in

A lot of ink has been spilt on the National Council of Educational and Research Training (NCERT)’s omission of certain details about the Mughals, among others, from the Class 12 text book. The NCERT said the portions overlapped with the material covered in previous classes and were omitted for brevity.

Editorial | Right lessons: on the lack of professionalism in the NCERT’s deletions in textbooks 

It is widely believed that our understanding of history comes from textbooks. This is not entirely the case. As with most social sciences, our knowledge of history comes from lived experience. This includes what we read in fiction or non-fiction or from the Internet; what we watch on television or cinema; what we are told by our friends and family either in person or via social media; what we see of history in our daily experience in the form of monuments or ruins; and the material objects we interact with such as heirloom jewellery or clothes or food. The stories told to us by our families, the meals we eat, and the clothes we wear, the places we visit all come together to create the foundation of our working knowledge of history. This is not to disparage the role of the history textbook in education.

The role of the textbook in our understanding of history is powerful but limited. Classrooms give us a framework which we can use to view the events of the world. Classroom instruction provides us with a sequence of events. For instance, a school student of history will broadly know that the rule of the Delhi Sultanate was followed by the rule of the Mughals and then the British in Delhi. If someone were to change the facts around and say that the British came before the Mughals, the student would have learned enough to know better than to trust them. The point of the textbook, therefore, is to provide a framework of factual information in a sequence. After completing their school education, most children would find it impossible to name the British Governor Generals of India, but all of them would know that the Governor General was the highest authority for the British Raj. So, we don’t really ‘learn’ history in school as much as learn a sequence of events of the past. The amount of curiosity the school curriculum generates about history in students can be seen by the many complaints one hears about how history is never taught in an interesting way in school.

Great Man Theory

The 19th-century essayist Thomas Carlyle posited a theory of the study of history called the Great Man Theory. He wrote that great men or influential and charismatic individuals, through intellect or force, bend the course of history and the narrative of history needs to be studied through their acts. While seemingly revolutionary for its time, this was nothing new. History has always been viewed through the prism of individual ‘doers’ who more often than not happen to be royalty. Most of what is wrong with the way history is taught and communicated can be traced back to the Great Man Theory. For one, the importance attached to dynasties and kings is often overstated. More crucially, the use of battles as milestones on a chronological roadmap also diminishes the power of other ways of looking at history. Far too much importance is attached to the military in history; the pain and brutality that would have accompanied battles and invasions are often couched in terms like ‘bravery’, and ‘glory’ to distract readers from the destruction and loss of lives that these wars often needlessly brought along with them. A more sensitive view of the past needs to be one where battles are viewed negatively in the scheme of historical narrative and more information communicated on the loss from conflict.

In the 20th century, a contrasting way of approaching history came about – mostly from left-leaning historians – called people’s history. This sought to focus on the view of the common people and on larger social and economic forces rather than on leaders. Another name for this approach to studying historical narratives was ‘history from below’ since it told the stories of the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the poor and weak (often referred to as subalterns) who have historically outnumbered those in power.

Applying an approach like this to communicate history both in classrooms and outside will have a number of effects. It would prise open the narrow prisms through which we have been forced to view history. If we no longer study about the wars and campaigns of kings or the arcs of dynasties and instead learned about their social and administrative policies, the conditions of the subaltern, and the daily routines of the people, we may learn history that is less glamorous but far more true to its purpose. Ultimately the purpose of communicating history is a simple one: to show how far we have come and how far we have yet to go. The goal of communicating history should be to have a citizenry that is aware that the past is nuanced and complex. With this realisation, people will stop being aggravated by history. The road to this begins when students learn about history from a perspective that takes the focus off individuals or dynasties and treats the subject as an evolving chronology of events.

Also read | The Mughals — Empire-builders of medieval India

While the NCERT has the onerous duty of prioritising and re-prioritising what history needs to be compressed into the 300 odd pages of a textbook, omitting information on the Mughals can be seen as a way to erase the factual retelling of an important epoch of Indian history even if the erasure might not make the greatest difference to public perception of them. Relatedly, a re-orientation of how information about them is communicated would go a long way in dispelling views formed because of ignorance about them.

Aditya Iyengar is the author of five critically acclaimed novels on mythology and historical fiction on the Cholas

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