Tales from here and there

Anjuli Kaul

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
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Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
– [Alexander Pope]

As a “trained” high school history teacher, I loved teaching and I believed, for many decades, that the study of history was an essential component of a good liberal, progressive education (along with the appreciation of world literature and the pursuit of the arts). I argued for its inclusion in the curriculum even for “science” and “commerce” students at the college level. Without history there could be no self-knowledge, no understanding of the present, no grounding for political engagement, and certainly a much-diminished ability to stand up to the propaganda of dictatorships. I was raised on E.H. Carr and R.G. Collingwood, and then discovered Keith Jenkins. I understood that “history as the past” came to us through interpretation (and revisionism) giving us insights into places and times that could not be physically revisited. I taught my students that we use this term “history” both to describe “the past” and the “study of the past”. I challenged my own attachment to the modernist narrative by considering the post-modernist approach. I made sure we all understood what Doris Lessing wrote about all formal schooling in The Golden Notebook:

“Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself – educating your own judgments. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.’”

When, however, I had to teach middle school children, I floundered. While navigating the history of Europe/India/the Americas/Africa with them, I tried to bring my approach towards education and towards studying history (which by now read “histories”) to the table; the children were horribly confused, because I believe all they wanted was a simple narrative. They were happy to learn that Mansa Musa, the ruler of Mali, went on a Haj to Mecca, and on the way, in Egypt, he gave away so much gold as gifts that it led to the devaluation of the precious metal! Or that the Black Death caused millions to die in Europe! Or any other tale that was humorous or macabre. They did not seek chronology or analysis (beyond a few “whys”); they were not interested in being “little historians” since the newer trends in teaching history were beginning to demand that we expose them to primary sources; it’s not that they were incapable of understanding “corroboration” or “bias”; they were just happier climbing trees, going on walks, creating a model or poster of Greek columns (without worrying about how or why it was important). Their answer to “why we study history” was that “we need not”!

But they learned a few facts, did a few tests, and unless they went on to read history as adults, left it behind in the past where it had all emerged from. It’s not because they were bored, it’s because they were young, most of them focused on the present, on their own lived experiences, their emotions; and the exploits and wonders of the past were merely hoops to be jumped through. Of course, there was always a minority of thoughtful and curious learners who took an interest in everything they learned, history included. They stayed behind to ask questions, to peer into my books and pick up the reproductions of the “artifacts” that lay on my desk.

I gradually came to the conclusion that thinking historically was not a natural act and required a certain maturity if the past was to be more than a bunch of facts, chapters and judgments. If students had to think like historians, they would need to ask questions, examine evidence, seek corroboration, look for bias, put aside their own prejudices, and be able to write out historical arguments. A tall order for young children who were better suited to learning experientially. And history was the one discipline that could not be “experienced”!

When I began working at a non-formal learning centre in Goa in 2015 (a space for 5-14 year olds), I decided that we would not teach history, nor would we ignore it. We would approach it through flora and fauna, through ecology, through literature, the arts, and play. We would read Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi’s Totto-Chan, and many others. We would answer questions, encourage critical and creative thinking about the present, past, and future, and we would acknowledge their connections to the stories their families told them about their genealogies and identities. Indeed, for many of us (Maori, Dalit, Kashmiri, Palestinian, Jew, and German) history is a very personal experience. And the children would “know” that humans have lived on this planet for more than a million years, that cultures and civilizations were built and destroyed, that power corrupts, that famines and floods were as much a part of living as music and dance, that peace was more than the absence of war; but children would also learn from “experience”: from walking and playing, singing and dancing, from exploring under rocks and leaves, from looking up at the sky, that there was the more-than-human world that shared this space with us.

And when they had become thoughtful and compassionate, courageous and resilient, or just older, they could, and should, engage in the formal study of history. They could study local history and world history, histories of nations and regions, histories of religions and societies; and would develop perspective and understanding; and grow up to think for themselves and to confront history wherever they found it. And find it they would. In maps and charts, in slogans and aphorisms, in popular film and video games, in museums and tourist centres, in the deceitful words of politicians… and mostly around the dining table where history bursts through the arguments on politics and economics.

In slow and small measures, they would answer for themselves the eternal question of thinkers: how did we get here? And perhaps more importantly: where do we go from here?

Further reading:
• E.H.Carr What is History? University of Cambridge and Penguin Books, 1961
• R.G.Collingwood The Idea of History. Oxford University Press, 1946
• Keith Jenkins Rethinking History. Taylor & Francis, 1991
• Michel Foucault Power/Knowledge Selected Interviews and Other Writings. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1980
• John Dewey The Child and the Curriculum. University of Chicago Press, 1902
• David Kolb Experiential Learning. Prentice-Hall, 1984
• Paulo Freire Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Seabury Press, 1970
• Robin Wall Kimmerer Braiding Sweetgrass.

The author has been a teacher of history since 1981, in Bombay, Kodaikanal and Mulshi. Along the way she has also taught social studies, political science, environmental geography and human rights. She lives and works in Goa at The Learning Centre, a non-formal experiential learning space for children. She can be reached at anjuli.kaul@gmail.com.

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