Towards experiential history - The need to include working skills in history curriculum

Over the years while dealing with different chapters in history, we come across constant references to occupations and trade where artisans evidently had a major role to play. Like for example we constantly read about textiles, jewellery, metalware, pottery either being unearthed in archaeological digs or references to all this in varied literary sources. All these are meant to indicate the richness of material culture of a given period and societies. And there is farming too. If even today nearly 60% of India is directly or indirectly dependent on the past, societies across the world were largely agricultural. Surplus could never be taken for granted till the 1800s and it is no accident that much of the rapid, intense and extensive technological changes leading to shifts in occupational profile happened only from the beginnings of the 19th century.

But more to the point here - some time back few kids were doing a project on Mughal textiles - the chikans, zardozi, brocades etc which Mughal culture inspired and I was at a total loss to explain what exactly the description (taken from wiki and rest from the net) meant for neither I or the kids had any idea as to how the looms work (i.e. the wefts and warps, jacquards etc). Likewise in another class when the kids were doing a 'project' on Greco-Roman pottery , I really could not explain to the kids how exactly the amphoras were made and how its unique reddish hue was obtained.

So as a teacher and almost all my students deal with history with practically little feel, understanding and ability to apply or create things and connect to those aspects of our existence which shapes our culture and indeed our very existence. What sort of history teaching would this be? Incomplete, un-empathetic, superficial where at best children can be helped to intellectualize something which needs to be experienced at certain physical levels. Professions and work such as farming, weaving, masonry, pottery, carpentry and smithy shaped our existence. In my view nothing can help children better appreciate these different professions and the skill, expertise, energy, focus, dedication, hard work that goes into making things by helping...nay compelling them to pick up skills such as weaving, spinning, farming etc in some measure. Its their products and outcomes which shaped (and shapes) our collective identities, our imagination and ergo our nation. For example while we talk so much of Mysore or Benares silk or the jewel like execution of sculptures on the walls of a Chalukya or Pallava temple, which gives us so much sense of rootedness and pride but do children (and teachers) really realize what all goes into making of all these? and importantly the experience of making these?

While we do have schools emphasizing art and certain skills like pottery and carpentry and even farming but as a history teacher I feel it needs to be historicized and the experience which children gain in trying to weave a cloth, or make some pottery or forge some weapons... be used as important learning objectives in history teaching. Detailed textual understanding of these processes will hardly give children a sense of connect to the products which we routinely use and indeed abuse.

In these days of conspicuous consumption people have no appreciation of how things get made and the conditions of work under which these get made. There is so much of taken-for-grantedness and contempt for people behind these occupations, if not for the things and products that emerge from such painstaking process. These in reality involve so much of creativity, observation and multiple-intelligences . It is the disdainful attitude towards these professions which actually nurtures caste mindset in India. History like i always tell my kids is meant to sensitize and make us alive to the world around us. And to do that we need to 'experientialize' history by giving the kids the ability, means and feel of things like farming, weaving, masonry etc that shaped and shapes our existence. Gandhi indeed was implying something similar, I would imagine, in urging for the need to bring in craft education in our curriculum.

So let us include skills like farming, weaving, pottery etc in our history curriculum and not merely in art and SUPW periods, where we can bring in farmers, artisans to schools to instruct and interact with kids. As my experience shows evaluating kids in this domain will help many who may not have the cognitive-linguistic ability to write well in exams and homework but can hone and display their prowess, application, understanding practically in these domains using their sensory-motor and bodily kinesthetic intelligence.

Now here are some visuals to add some 'super colour' to an another wise dull prose where I conjure the kind of responses I'm likely to get from some of my old students when compelled to 'go dirty' and 'sweat' it out on the way of learning history!!! Click on the images to see captions clearly...ensai!!

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