History teaching: a matter of orientation

Vikash Sharma

Education, as most of us will agree, is not merely about degrees or bookish knowledge; education involves a lifelong process whereby a person’s innermost potential is revealed through an experiential understanding of life. Modern systems of education are in urgent need of critical restructuring and innovation and there is a need to build a bridge between theory and practice. Education has today become a commodity for market transaction. Such an orientation is not only materialistic but deprives education of its capacity to reveal the deepest human possibilities.

sanchi-stupa_madhya-pradesh_bw Modern educational institutions operate like factories producing specialists but not necessarily thinking, sensitive beings. Ironically, there is no deep and meaningful engagement with education. Ivan Illich uses the word ‘hidden curriculum’ to describe this tendency which promotes conformity, bureaucracy, instrumental rationality, hierarchy, and competition in society. This gives birth to a technocratic, mechanical society with no higher human sensibilities. It thus produces a scenario where only skills regarded important by industries are valued and no other branch of knowledge is seen as significant. It is this that has led to the significant decline of humanities in our times.

The present article is an endeavor to understand the relevance of history as a subject for our times. We know that the conventional form of teaching history seems to involve memorizing hard facts and its importance lies only as far as quiz contests and competitive examinations are concerned. As I recall my own school days, I realize that history is often perceived as a discipline that requires no creative imagination, no analytical skill, but only the ability to memorize the so called hard facts – dates of war, treaties, pacts and political resolutions. History is divorced from the present concerns of social life. We look at the past only as something that is distant, but do not see ourselves as active participants in creating it. It is true that history deals with the past, but this past is simultaneously the reflection of the present. That is why, today as I look back I feel that it is important to make a creative intervention and share the tales of history with young children in a manner that involves them, arouses their imagination, and makes them see that history is not a fossilized artefact for display in museums; it is alive, because the past is not just the past, it is also our present and possibly our future. For example, a reflexive study of emperor Ashoka, the Kalinga war, the foreign conquests, the independence struggle and the Gandhian movements suggests how history enables us to make sense of our present. The past events cannot be separated from the present situation. The willingness to learn from our past, which should not be forgotten, is the only solution to all our contemporary issues. In the school curriculum (barring some notable exceptions), however, history is made into an utterly boring subject to learn.

When I was teaching war and peace to a group of children, I asked them about Ashoka. True, they spoke of the Kalinga war, his conversion to Buddhism and recalled some of the scriptures that Ashoka had constructed, as well as his edicts and messages. I realized that for them, this was merely factual information to be memorized; but there was hardly any organic, living relationship with history as a subject. Look at all our contemporary conflicts, be it terrorism, caste violence, communal hatred, disputes between the state and people, or wars between two nations. These events go against all those noble efforts through which great legends of history sought to nourish our civilization. For example, we fail to realize the significance of peace which Ashoka felt after the Kalinga war, despite having all details of this historic event. The paradox is that this has remained only superficial knowledge, and not become part of our lives. Hardly anything has changed – people are dying; blood is flowing every day. And all of us – parents, teachers, and media celebrities – are promoting an environment that values greed, power, and violence. From a young age children are playing with models of guns and knives; video games, comic books, and cartoon films seem to have naturalized violence and hatred in everyday life.

Indeed, we are bringing up our children in a society that does not see any problem with violence, it normalizes hatred. This, I feel, is a serious problem as it gives birth to a society that is restless, impatient, and violent. If as adults we could see history more deeply, we would be able to teach children the values of love and peace.

sanchi-stupa_madhya-pradesh I realize that such a profound reflection coming from the mouth of a warrior like Ashoka against war is proof of man’s latent humanity and spirituality, and is a great message. If we allow such great messages to penetrate our consciousness there would not be any further possibility of war. With this creative restlessness began my humble effort and experimentation. These children were reading about Ashoka at a time when newspapers and television channels were constantly portraying the images of Israeli attack on Palestine. I wanted to contextualize the tales of Ashoka. I showed them a documentary film on the Second World War; I showed the visuals of the Gulf war and the recent war in Palestine. I looked at their eyes, and very spontaneously they articulated the need for peace. It was at this juncture that I went beyond the printed words of the prescribed school history texts and persuaded my children to imagine themselves as Ashokas of contemporary times and make new inscriptions filled with messages for the world to stop war, and say ‘yes’ to humanity. For us, it was a great feeling to collect pieces of rocks and make them understand why they ought to work on these rocks and write the messages, which should be communicated to the larger world for creating peace, prosperity, and happiness. The idea excited them; they started working with pencils and colours, they soon came forward with a series of beautiful messages…. Their inscriptions were ready. They looked at the book, saw the black and white picture of the inscriptions that Ashoka created in his time, and now they could see their own inscriptions. History came alive and became experiential; past and present merged.

The teacher plays a very important role in society, he/she can cultivate a sense of reflexivity in children; they should learn that something as beautiful and crucial as peace cannot be found in technological advancement or material superficiality; peace is something all of us carry within. And with creative pedagogic interventions, as my humble efforts suggest, history can be felt and experienced in an immensely illuminating way.

The author is working in the field of education and finds his vocation in the art of pedagogy, photography and philosophic writing. He can be reached at vikashsharma946@gmail.com.