Over the past decade, we have witnessed unprecedented churning in India. Iconic leaders of the freedom movement including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru have been criticised and reviewed as never before. Different groups in Indian society project new icons to take their place in what a historian has described as “history wars”. Often, these new icons have as complex a legacy as the ones they are vying to replace.
But history wars are not an exclusively Indian phenomenon. The Black Lives Matter campaign that erupted after the horrific murder of African-American George Floyd has questioned why monuments to leaders of the southern confederacy of states that fought to maintain slavery and apartheid during the American civil war (1861-65) occupy pride of place in many of America’s cities. Earlier this week in a surprising initiative, the king of Belgium formally expressed regret to the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo whose experience of Belgian colonisation more than a century ago was one of the most savage and genocidal in modern history. Similarly a few years ago, Dalits in Maharashtra were harshly prevented from celebrating the bravery of a Mahar contingent that fought (on the side of the British) during the battle of Bhima Koregaon which led to the final defeat of the Marathas in 1818. Dalits are questioning why their history should remain invisible in modern India.
This, in a nutshell is why teachers need to rethink how to teach history in primary-secondary education. For most school students, the study of history is restricted to memorising mind-numbing facts, figures and dates in a single narrative to be learned by rote and reproduced in exams. Moreover, history has repeatedly been pressed into the service of the nation or states and every year controversies break out over inclusions and exclusions in school history textbooks of different states.
Therefore to rethink teaching history in schools, we must rethink history itself. On the one hand, there is the discipline of history and its practice with established research protocols, sources, standards of evidence and narrative styles. On the other hand, the discipline of history does not stand above the values of society and concerns about justice. E.H. Carr, the famous British historian, observed that history is the story of the past seen through present eyes.
The narratives of historians are inevitably influenced by concerns of their times. If in the past, historians thought it was possible to write objectively about their chosen subjects based on research in government archives whose collection of documents was presumed to represent the most truthful version of events, contemporary historians tend to question the capability of anyone to write unbiased history even while consciously striving for objectivity. We dispute the presumption that official archives are the sole repositories of history. Moreover, in the past, history was written as the story of nations and great men. Today, history’s subject matter is considerably more varied, and includes narratives of groups at the margins of society. The imperatives of social justice make it incumbent on us to critique received histories in terms of their representation of caste, race, gender, class and more.
So what does all this mean for teaching history in primary-secondary schools? First, history textbooks and teachers should present multiple and competing narratives rather than merely impart information. Teachers should encourage students to discern core themes, and place themselves in the shoes of people unlike themselves, in a time that’s not their own. Second, we must teach them what historians do, and the historians’ craft. Third, we must not discourage students from questioning popular narratives. As teachers, we should encourage questions about the type of history they study and speculate about narrators’ representation of people and their motivations.
Fourth, we must encourage students to engage in age-appropriate learning that keeps a sense of play alive. History is a serious discipline but the possibilities of story-telling through it, abound. Fifth, the study of history should enhance skills that will come in handy for students no matter what careers they pursue — language skills, ability to think clearly, to make persuasive evidence-based arguments, to empathise with groups of people with whom they have little in common, and to accept complexity. Finally, history is a discipline that belongs to a broader grouping of associated disciplines known as the humanities. Radically rethinking how we teach history in school education will help teachers refocus on humanity and prepare a generation of young people prepared to take on the increasingly complex challenges of societies of the future.
The history we teach in schools and the way children learn it, is I believe a barometer for our social health. If that’s the yardstick, history as it is taught in the nation’s schools requires emergency reinvention.
(An alumna of JNU, Oxford and Harvard universities, Dr. Gitanjali Surendran is associate professor of history at the Jindal Global Law School, Delhi NCR)