Is this how you teach history?

Chintan Girish Modi

What is the story behind your becoming a history teacher? Is this a subject you have enjoyed all your life? Was there a specific teacher who made you fall in love with this discipline? Were you captivated by a particular historical period and wanted to make it come alive for generations of students? Did you begin teaching history because someone in your life thought that you had a special talent for it?

“Like many history teachers, I entered the profession due to a vested interest in dismantling the inequalities generated by the abuse of power,” writes Hasnet Lais in a stunning personal narrative for The Independent, a well-known British newspaper that is published online (https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/black-history-month-colonialism-history-teacher-whitewashing-selective-past-a8025741.html). This short piece dated October 29, 2017, has a long title: “As a history teacher, I’m horrified by the whitewashing of my curriculum – I’m being told to teach that colonialism was good.”

Lais, who studied at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, argues that history teaching is “more than simply delivering a syllabus or helping students achieve the required learning outcomes to move up the grade boundaries.” He feels duty bound to “involve students in the struggle for freedom and equality,” to question a curriculum “where the empire is rendered a civilizing historical force with a humanizing mission,” to fill the gaps in textbooks that “have barely mentioned how the colonial enterprise was institutionalized in Britain, as part and parcel of a systematic presumption of white supremacy.”

Have you ever felt like this while teaching a unit? If yes, how did you process those feelings? What choices did you make in terms of your classroom teaching? Did you have a colleague support you through this process? How did you balance the demands of a prescribed curriculum with your own sense of social justice? If you haven’t had such an experience, think of what you might do in a future moment when you are faced with these challenges.

Lais writes, “Often, my conscience leads me to digress from convoluted schemes of work and lesson plans to shine the light on how the enslavement of non-white people was in Britain’s national interest.” He wants to nurture “genuine historical insight and reflection” instead of “simply prepping students for standardized tests” so that they can “identify modern reincarnations of history’s undeniable crimes.” According to him, “Teachers do not have the luxury of being selective about the past, and ought to be the frontline of resistance against this historical amnesia.”

Which of the following statements captures your reaction to this teacher’s approach? Feel free to pick more than one.
1. He is too passionate to be objective.
2. He is the kind of teacher every teacher should aspire to be.
3. He is likely to leave the students utterly confused.
4. He should be an activist, not a teacher.
5. He is indoctrinating the students.
6. He is likely to run into trouble with the school administration.
7. He is teaching the students to think critically, which is an important life skill.
8. He seems to be well-trained.
9. He loves conspiracy theories.
10. He does not have a social life, so he can afford to spend all his time planning lessons.

Examine your chosen statements carefully. Reflect on what they reveal about your priorities as a teacher, the values that are important to you, the fears that stop you from taking risks in the classroom, your beliefs about the school administration, the comfort zone that shapes your decisions, your prejudices and preconceived notions about colleagues, and your understanding of the skills students need to develop.

I imagine that many Indian school teachers who would like to emulate the pedagogical approach laid out by Lais might worry that their pre-service training did not prepare them for such complexity. What can be done to remedy this situation? Answers would vary across contexts, dependent not only on how creative and resourceful teachers are but also on institutional support for critical approaches that can appear scary and exciting in equal measure.

In-service professional development is certainly a space worth exploring so that history teachers who have been trained primarily in content delivery can also learn about how historiography is informed by ethnocentrism, racism, patriarchy, casteism, neo-liberalism and heteronormativity. These are big words that have been traditionally used for intellectual gatekeeping in a way that puts the classroom teacher at a disadvantage and places the university trained intellectual on a pedestal. Let us change that.

The author is a peace educator who enjoys facilitating workshops with students and teachers. He has worked with the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development on a guidebook for textbook writers, and is currently a fellow with the Prajnya Trust. He can be reached at [email protected].

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