'Unburdening history from past'

Well, I'm back after a long long time....been dwelling on some issues connected both to history and history teaching and i ultimately figured that current trends in historiography would actually help children more than anything else in recognising history's worth as a subject beyond chronology of events. Read on....



Unburdening history from ‘past’

As the popular definition goes history is a study of the past, which it indeed is. But it’s the way that one perceives the past which is problematic and ergo the title unburdening history from past.

In the discourse of 'common sense', knowledge of the past constitutes the subject matter of history. This knowledge is constituted in terms of information on events across space and time. Information largely on what, wheres, whens of the past and to a lesser degree hows and whys, gives one the picture of the past. This is history for you and indeed for most of us. ‘Showing the past as it was’ to restate the oft quoted phrase of Leopold von Ranke.

Limits of empirical, linear political history
Under such a schema therefore, history is very understandably seen as a discipline having little bearing to the present. ‘History is studied for its own sake’ and though avowed tokenism such ‘learning from the past’ is also uttered in the same breath, it falls, rather fails, even the most hardened history scholars/historians of such empirical, positivist persuasion, to convince anyone of its relevance. [Note - It is certainly possible to argue and prove the relevance of history in such a positivist mode as one of the recent book by Partha Bose on Alexander of Macedonia has shown. Here purely going by the campaigns of Alexander, Partha Bose argues how Alexander’s strategies have been similarly employed to survive and excel in corporate world. See Partha Bose, Alexander the great’s art of strategy – Lessons from the great empire builder, (New Delhi, Penguin, 2003)] Thus if such be the 'common sensical' understanding of history and indeed our past, the foundation and indeed the future of a discipline which merely stands on the twin pillars of ‘fact’ and information and in the process privileges political history in a very linear fashion, is most certainly bleak and shaky.

Cognition and effects of empirical approach


As for children, history also becomes even more far removed from their social lives. Given the way children in their early and mid-teens (middle and high school kids) take cognizance of the world, adopting such an approach and perception of history and then attempt to teach it is to take a very non-child centric approach. Middle and high school teachers fail to satisfactorily answer the probing questions of kids who seek more concrete examples of relevance than mere mouthing of tokenisms of ‘learning from the past’. Perhaps the most important fallout of such a perspective and method of teaching history is making memorization the most important tool for studying history. In no other discipline is memorization as intensely used as it is in history where other means of developing and using cognitive faculties are extremely limited. And even when some little analysis that one attempts in the study of certain topics i.e. comparisons, reasoning etc it is not left to the discretion of a student to arrive at his/her own conclusions. Once again a student is expected to recall and recollect (for example in the study of Cholas), the factors, say that prompted Rajendra Chola to undertake an expedition to south-east Asia. Such a staid and one-dimensional approach to the past is justified and legitimized in the name of ‘objectivity’, to see and understand the past ‘as it really was’.

Any criticism is responded with a view that history afterall is such a discipline where interpretations, views and opinions of the past is immaterial to its epistemic status where ‘facts are sacred’ and ‘opinions are free’ and largely irrelevant.


Such an approach hardly augurs well for middle and high school students if we believe in child’s own ability to perceive events and arriving at certain inferences. Though cognitively speaking, children do get more decentred and have the ability to think beyond their ‘self’ and telescope into the past and picture themselves and others in different cultures and civilizations, nevertheless children feel that in history, their individual perception even when based on informed reasoning is not given credence. A child is merely expected to parrot the so called views as obtained in their textbooks and what ever the teacher puts across in the classroom. It is precisely for all these reason where child’s views are not factored in that history is rarely a subject of choice or liking by the students.

Current historiographical trends
Therefore if we are to make a discipline like history relevant it will be possible to do so only by altering the perception that history is a mere accumulation of ‘facts’. In this context the recent trends in historiography which has veered the discipline away from events, personalities and their exploits, in fact holds tremendous promise for making history fun, interesting and relevant for kids. The move to social history and also ‘cultural turn’ of history, best evidenced in the subaltern history series, have helped in giving a new meaning to history. For such efforts have made history processual where history is realized more as a way of knowing the world around both in the past and also the present. In such a perspective establishing facts of the past is jettisoned to understand the context in which the events in the past transpire.


We need to clarify that in the process of making way for a ‘subjective’ look, the notion of objectivity is not being jettisoned here. One needs to understand that certain things in history are sine qua non. It certainly is important to get the dates of certain event, people to whom certain events are attributed, where these events took place etc correctly. For example we cannot say that the second battle of Panipat was fought in 1857 between Babur and the British!! The point is once we have the dates, names, events and the flow of events right, do we stop at that in history?? [Note- It is for such a reason why even attempts to make an empirical study of the past experiential for kids by telling them stories, taking them on field visits to temples, forts and museums and employing activities like art, quiz etc which is no doubt fun but in itself may not help them to understand why history as a subject is relevant or why past is studied.]

This is where when interpretations and subjectivity is brought in where one makes informed interpretations based on careful reading and re-reading of different sources available for the study of a particular period in history. In this re-reading (the hermeunitic turn) as mentioned, one takes the help of other social-science disciplines like sociology, economics, anthropology and linguistics whose theories help us in a more nuanced understanding of the past.

That the past is not therefore studied for its own sake but more for an understanding to emerge about the world around as manifested in both nature and society – this is the crux that a child, indeed all of us, have to understand. The fallout of such a view is the understanding that history is more an mode of enquiry (make it inquiry) available for one to understand the world around as obtained in both its physical aspect (the usual matter attributed to science) and also the social aspect (the domain attributed to sociology, economics, anthropology other than history). Thus if this fixation for dates, events, exploits of kings (and rarely queens) is discarded for a more balanced view where not just these but also the context in which much of the past have transpired is also included, history as a subject matter emerges more dynamic. The notion of history as mere presentation of events of the past in a linear chronological fashion, gives way to a more ‘subjective’ view.

More than anything else what such an approach does is that history as taught, understood in schools no longer rests on the mere use of memory as the most important pedagogical tool in the understanding of history. It also validates possibilities of looking at events in different manner and it becomes incumbent on the teachers, syllabus framers, and text books to help understand history not so much as a subject that hinges on certain ‘facts’ of the past but also encourages one to make ‘meaningful’, ‘appropriate’ and informed interpretations. This implies that a child also can have a say in the interpretation of past and in this approach history is taught where not just the past but even the present and importantly the child matter. Nothing will help to bring the child back into the classroom and the subject than adopting such an approach.

Watch out for my take on the new NCERT syllabus and history text...

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