My views on 'good history' teaching...

This in response to my earlier blog 'what is good history teaching' all about...

Ms Srivastava’s intention and passion is indeed laudable. It’s just that she is not up-to-date with recent researches in history which helps to make history more inclusive, broadbased, helps in answering questions which are central to the present. Modern historiography has helped us to see the changes and continuities which otherwise escapes our attention. Without such an understanding, to say we learn from the past, or that history repeats itself, is a meaningless or an empty statement. We need to understand the past in all its complexities. Otherwise it’s just information delivery on kings, administration, art etc. Historical knowledge today is equated with the amount of information we have about the past (which is again political). Information in itself does not become knowledge. Knowledge has to fathomed through a dialogic process in which these different aspects of the past (i.e. the information) is conceptualised in some concrete form. For example let us assume that Ms Srivastava is dealing with Akbar’s military campaigns. She is dwelling extensively on the number of battles Akbar fought. She makes feeble attempts (through what little resources she can lay her hands on) to also tell how these battle were fought which is a very exciting area of study for children (not just boys). And?? Period. What if Srivastava tells the students briefly about these battles and poses the question to the students as to why so many battles were fought in the past, not just by Akbar or Samudragupta but most of the monarchs in India’s past?? What if Ms. Srivastava’s train of thought went something like this: All the wars fought between the different monarchs in India’s pre-colonial past (and indeed elsewhere in Europe in its ancient and medieval past) were really (unsuccessful??) attempts at state formation. No concrete ideology other than religion existed and there were no welding force of language (given the widespread illiteracy in terms of print). Religious ideology by and large was more a social category than political though the Muslim rulers in particular made repeated attempts to use it as political force. (Crusades in Europe) The political class i.e. ruling classes, the monarchs etc themselves were a divided lot in the past and though they may have been alike in terms of religion and language, each of these classes competed with each other to gather as much surplus i.e. state revenue, as possible. This brought them into conflict again and again. Hence the wars. And once nationalism emerged as an ideology thanks to the print culture and nation states emerged, the different nation states fought wars again for maximizing revenue from land and trade. (i.e. colonial wars) Today perhaps wars are also fought apart from territorial, religious, economic reasons for issues like democracy, human rights etc (the ostensible claim of George Bush for US presence in Iraq!!!). For what can be seen as ‘secular reasons’. Therefore it will become apparent that history does repeat itself but not in the very simplistic way as Ms Srivastava would like us to believe. Wars have always been fought but a study of wars over ancient, medieval and modern epochs shows us the different context in which these were fought. Of course the methodology, the armaments used have also changed. We can learn from the past then, to the extent that say an army general in the Indian army at LOC knows that the present war with Pakistan is different from the wars fought between Ibrahim Lodi and Babur or Asoka who fought against the Kalinga ruler. He can more certainly learn certain strategies that were used by some of the monarchs or military generals in the past like Alexander of Macedonia. Hence both the changes and continuities are being addressed here and that is what the study of history is all about. The challenge now for Ms Srivastava (and us), after having a more nuanced understanding of the whys of wars, is to evolve teaching practices which also help a student to develop a more discriminating, nuanced understanding of the past which goes beyond cramming some important battles, dates and monarchs. For constructivist teaching/learning to happen some concrete grounding is certainly needed. Now what kind of activities can evolve to help the child to understand this idea….I will await responses.

2 comments:

sharada_05 said...

Einstein had a similar experience in his history class. His interest lay not in facts and figures but in why these events took place and what the outcome meant. I think its not only universal but also a recurring lacuna in history teaching.

Anonymous said...

The only way i can learn history is by researching.More importance should be given to researching in history than classroom teaching.It is tough to understand how old a temple is without giving it a visit.More over,history is not all about glorifying the past,or degrading the past.It is more about analysing it.History would be an ideal subject to research on!!