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RAISING A TOAST TO HISTORY TEACHERS

“He thinks he is making history, but everyday he is making up history,” remarked Jairam Ramesh recently about Narendra Modi. Expectedly, Oscar Wilde has a very different take on the business of ‘making history’. “Any fool can make history,” he said, “but it takes a genius to write it.” We can reflect long and hard on this gem but on the subject of history, many of us think that it takes a really courageous person to want to teach history and a genius to teach it well. No other subject generates so much controversy and so much emotion. The problem is that we tend to use our collective memory selectively to suit our purposes. As G.K. Chesterton points out (History versus the Historians), there are too many ways in which you can perceive the past and no historian can be impartial.

In a recent article, the sociologist, Dipankar Gupta, writes, “...democracy scores over all else... because it encourages us to forget the old and polish the new.” He goes on to state, “The ability to forget the past is then the hallmark of an established democracy.” I hope I have got it wrong. Perhaps what Gupta means is that nobody should carry any baggage from the past in order to deal with the present. Should we or can we forget the past? No matter how many roads are renamed and how many statues are pulled down and how many new political alliances are forged, we should know that the past does not ever go away. So it is selective memory and distorted versions of the past that history teachers in particular are concerned about. In fact, I was quite nervous when I came across the title of the book: Lies My Teacher Told Me. In this book the author, James Loewen, sets out to prove that not one of the high school history text books he surveyed “did a decent job of making history interesting or honest”.

In our country, whenever there is a change of power in the state, one of the first casualties is the prevalent school history text book. Long-suffering history teachers are well aware that there is a leftist approach to history and a rightist one, a secular one and a ‘patriotic’ one. Here I need to point out that trying to instil patriotism through history has its dangers. There is a thin line between patriotism and jingoism and, in my opinion, it is dishonest to conjure flawless personalities from history in order to promote patriotic feeling or party loyalty. History wars, for instance, have been endlessly fought on the issue of which history to teach. Curiously, these wars are fought more by politicians than historians, sometimes over which icons and which events to include or give importance to. Perhaps there is some truth in the saying that there is no history —only historians. In the multi-cultural United Kingdom, there is a growing yearning to teach ‘Britishness’ through the teaching of British history. I am afraid that the sample multiple-choice questions for aspiring citizens look alarmingly like our inane board examination history questions. “Q. What year did women in the UK gain the right to divorce their husband? 1945, 1810, 1857 or 1901?” Then there is the tricky issue of how a teacher would deal with a prescribed history book which in her opinion deals with the past from a one-sided perspective.

History is a complex subject to teach and to put it mildly, not a favourite subject with school students. As a rude schoolboy put it, “It’s just one d**n thing after another.” And you will notice that most school jokes about history are around dates. A telling one is: “I wish I was born 2000 years ago.” “Why?” “Then I wouldn’t have to learn all these dates...” We can’t really blame students for harbouring such feelings about history, nor can teachers be held wholly responsible for such a sorry perception of the subject. The nature of the history question papers at public examinations, the quality of most text books and the way history has to be taught in order to prepare students for examinations, all contribute to the general perception that history is just about strings of names, dates and events which are painstakingly memorized and happily forgotten.

Yet it isn’t really a mystery that the same students loved the subject in the junior classes. The simple explanation is that the teacher did not have to gear her teaching to elicit high scores in board examinations. And every history teacher knows that a sure way of engaging her students is to master the art of story-telling. Thus, over the years, schoolchildren have been told stories of King Alfred who burnt the cakes, William Tell who pierced an apple with his bow and arrow, of the boy Alexander who calmed down the restive horse, Bucaphalus, the unlettered Kalidas who became Vikramaditya’s court poet and of the clever Birbal who regularly outwitted his rivals in Akbar’s court. With very young children it did not matter that it was often legends or folklore rather than history that was dealt with but even through such stories a teacher could convey a sense of the different ages and of life in those times long, long ago. The abrupt transition from story-telling to explaining dry information from prescribed text-books is indeed upsetting. Teaching and learning history through ‘projects’ is widely prevalent today. It can be very effective but the mindless downloading, scanning, cutting and pasting that go on sometimes to make attractive project files are a sheer waste of time, energy and money.

Part of the problem faced by history teachers stems from the fact that there is no uniform answer to the question “What is history?” Moreover the aims and purposes of teaching and learning history are not universally agreed upon. (Meanwhile, some people have asked why it should be history and not herstory.) Well, the Greek root of the word history indicates that it means ‘questioning’ or ‘investigating’ and this is what the study of history implies. Unfortunately there is practically no research or investigation at the school level — text books and teachers’ notes suffice for the handling of examination questions. Very little attempt is made to bridge the huge gap between history as a discipline in high school and as a discipline thereafter.

Recently, Samuel Wineburg of Stanford University held a workshop for history teachers in the city. A scholar of history, cognitive science and education, Wineburg is in India on a Fulbright-Nehru project entitled Learning History in a Digital Age. His work with practising schoolteachers is immensely valued in these times when memorizing facts and dates makes no sense anymore. (I wish some of our own historians and professors would break out of their academic folds and interact with school teachers and school children.) The teachers attending the workshop here were pleased to hear the professor say that even middle school students could be taught “to read like a historian”. We must not underestimate our children. They are well able to look for historical fact in primary and secondary sources, assess the quality of information in their textbooks and weigh the evidence available. Young people should be warned about accepting something as true simply because it is in their text book or on a website. In fact, students may be encouraged to rewrite portions of their textbook according to their findings and they will soon recognize that history is not about dates and facts alone: the ‘interpretative and evidentiary’ nature of history is brought home.

After all these outpourings, I wonder if I have been able to establish that a good history teacher must have multiple skills. She is not only required to generate interest in her subject but also to convince her students of the overarching significance of studying the past, irrespective of jobs and careers. They must be made to understand that all persons without exception need to have an acquaintance with history or else they will not comprehend the present. Importantly, the teacher must be objective at all times and not allow her leanings and biases to colour her lessons. Indeed, like a lawyer, she must produce evidence to support her pronouncements and expect the same from her students — never mind the declarations of the textbook. The question that students should be asked and learn to ask of themselves is, “How do we know that the textbook is right?” All this may be sounding impractical but I do believe that that the study of history is a search for the truth.

Having said this, I would like to state emphatically that history may also be read for pure enjoyment. One book that has given me unending pleasure as well as new insights is The Story of Mankind written and illustrated by Hendrik Willem van Loon for his two children. The charming drawings remind me of Alice who said, “What is a book without pictures?” Then there is this wonderful book called A Little History of the World by the art historian, E.H. Gombrich. Written for children, it can be equally enjoyed by adults. The author’s preface to one of the editions said, “I want to stress that this book is not and never was intended to replace any textbooks of history... I would like my readers to relax and to follow the story without having to take notes or to memorise names and dates. In fact, I promise that I shall not examine them on what they have read.”

But alas, until history syllabuses and examination patterns are changed, history teachers must continue to make their students study with diligence the facts, dates and accounts of events that are contained in their school textbooks and in the process run the risk of earning curses with unnerving regularity. It is time that we raised a toast to all history teachers for valiantly trying, against all odds, to make their subject interesting and meaningful.