Chandita Mukherjee passed away recently, at the end of April 2023. Few people today would know that she directed 13 episodes of “Bharat Ki Chhap, The Identity of India”1 in 1989. The series was funded by the Department of Science and Technology, under the leadership of scientist, educator, and Padma Vibhushan recipient Professor Yashpal. Its purpose was to encourage Indians of all ages to better know themselves through engaging with the history of their science and technology.
The need for developing a national identity was keenly felt by an educator of Professor Yashpal’s stature. Having served India through its transition into a democracy after thousands of years of complex and dynamic history, Professor Yashpal recognized that the success of this transition bore some reliance on a shared ownership of a national identity among the citizens of this young nation. To this end, Chandita’s brave format explores India’s identity through a scientific khoj that touches on historical and scientific facts and their relationship with normative and cultural conceptions.
Sadly, however, this process of enquiry into national identity albeit on film did not find as essential a place in school as did the ubiquitous history textbooks. As an educator, this is entirely unsurprising and serves as further evidence of vast quantities of deep work done in silos over the past 70 years that never emerged into the mainstream and became accessible to students across India.
The social science textbooks2 developed in the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Program (HSTP) initiated in 1972 are one such case in point. The writers and researchers who created these textbooks, and piloted them in middle schools, were guided by the question:
“Is it important to know something about social forces so that an informed population can exert an influence on them, thereby helping to shape its destiny?” They then set out some guiding principles which ironically are completely aligned with our National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020) although it arrived 50 years later. I say ironic because the HSTP programme itself was shut down by the then government of Madhya Pradesh precisely because the ask of children was less to do with a vast syllabus and dates to rote learn in order to provide a right answer, and more to do with activity-based, experiential learning that led to comprehension and critical thinking as is encouraged and promoted by NEP 2020.
India and history
We can ask a pertinent rhetorical question here. Can social science in general and history in particular ever be taught without controversy and be devoid of indoctrination? We know the answer is a resounding “no it cannot”. So then what is the way forward for a unified history in as pluralistic a society as India that has local, regional and national identities that are often at odds themselves? A perfect illustration of this is the current hostility between the Kuki and Meitei communities of Manipur that has led to death and destruction. There are a plethora of stories, all of which are completely believed by the people who create them and listen to them, and all of which have nothing in common other than anger and betrayal. Each State seems to carry a similar local history, whether it is Assam, Nagaland, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Kashmir or Karnataka. None of these stories has as yet made it to the history books.
The NEP 2020 states “It is through the development of a strong sense and knowledge of their own cultural history, arts, languages, and traditions that children can build a positive cultural identity and self-esteem”,3 and “…in addition to their value in solutions to societal problems, any country’s identity, upliftment, spiritual/intellectual satisfaction and creativity is also attained in a major way through its history, art, language, and culture.” It is interesting to note how history and culture are conceptually twinned by NEP 2020, while Chandita attempted to explore the tension between the two.
Eklavya’s lost battle with HSTP was prophetic to the history of education in India. Policy makers and researchers were supported by the Department of Science and Technology to promote the making of meaning as the core work of education. However, this was done in a political and social climate that was not conducive to the constructivist pace required for a child to understand a complex multi-lingual, multi-ethnic storytelling of thousands of years past.
Textbook writers were unable to dedicate the time and resources that would support teachers and students in exploring the nuances of a country that had recently won independence, was forging a new pluralistic liberal identity after many had suffered the trauma of the partition, while many sought their identity in myths and past glory.
As a result of this reductive approach, we studied a content heavy set of selected “facts” about the subcontinent and newly formed India, divided into seven textbooks to be taught and examined in about 500 hours per academic year. Most times, these textbooks had critics and so India’s experts at NCERT published, revised, retained, and reduced these textbooks further, till they were a disconnected set of stories about early human settlements, kings and dynasties, the war of independence, world wars and the birth of the United Nations. There was almost no analysis of what succeeded and what failed in diplomacy, trade or national boundaries. Which countries made the grade and which did not appear reasonably interesting to the text book writers was never part of the explanation to the student in the foreword of the textbook.
The desire to embrace diversity without referring to the ever prevalent divisive social structure that had deep rooted victors and victims jostling for representation, power, respect and a voice led most textbooks to be watered down versions of some people’s truths that were to be accepted as truths by the student.
The Guidebook for History Textbooks Authors, 20124, an unofficial collaboration between UNESCO, the League of Arab States, ISESCO, the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for the Dialogue between Cultures and the Swedish Institute Alexandria, in cooperation with the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research and the Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education and Research, states that “History textbooks can help young people to ask and answer questions about the present by engaging with the past. They have the potential to spark curiosity and to engage students with the dilemmas, choices and beliefs of people in the past. History textbooks can also help young people develop their awareness of their own identities through an understanding of their own and other cultures. As students develop their understanding of the nature of historical study, textbooks can encourage them to ask important questions about the past, to analyze evidence and to evaluate different interpretations of history.”
School textbooks do not have different interpretations of history and most of them do not encourage the questions that require students to analyze evidence. There is a change of focus from dates to “…historians now write about a host of other issues, and other questions. They look at how people earned their livelihood, what they produced and ate, how cities developed and markets came up, how kingdoms were formed and new ideas spread, and how cultures and society changed.”5 It is a single narrative, explanatory and not open to questioning or investigation.
|Student voice, Aritro Sarkar, DPS Kolkata: One of my key takeaways from having learnt history is appreciating the possibility of multiple realities, and their corresponding experiences. History is not simply one singular narrative that outlines an all-encompassing chronology of time. It is in fact a multitude of such narratives – one of them is picked as the dominant narrative, and this is a deeply political choice.
For instance, it is a historical fact that India became independent on August 15, 1947. But the narratives around that fact are never the same – for those in the power corridors of Delhi, a city still grappling with its overnight status as the administrative centre of the world’s largest democracy, histories would abound with optimism and a sense of reclaimed agency. But what about the Santhals in Eastern India, one of the first communities to rebel against the British? How did they experience independence? Was it the same way? How about communities lower down on the caste hierarchies? What did the 15th of August mean for them? The millions of people now unmoored from their own homes, traversing a border as hasty as it was arbitrary? What was ‘independence’ like for them? It certainly was not the same for everyone.
Multiple historical narratives, centered around the same episode, space or time in the past exist – with some more prominent than the others. One of the joys of learning history is being able to understand these silences that speak from the past, why they existed, and what can be done to bring them into the broader pantheon of history as we know and see it. Understanding the past is one thing, but history allows you to interrogate it, which is such a rewarding experience.
It is, however, admittedly, not all rosy. History’s inherent mutability is also its Achilles Heel, one can argue – it is easy to distort, deny and negate. To be fair, this isn’t as much the discipline’s fault, as much as it is the practitioner’s – and maybe even that is a stretch. More specifically, what I don’t like is the consistent downplaying of this very multiplicity of history – its beauty lies in its democracy. Constantly thundering that only one history is a ‘valid’ history – as schools especially, and colleges, even, are wont to – is firstly what drives people away from the subject, and secondly, reproduces the power hierarchies that have enabled such histories to become dominant in the first place. The idea at such levels of study should be to add to what we know of the past, ask what we don’t know, and why.
“Can students formulate questions about the current social structures and forces that takes them to an exploration of their genesis and development in the past?” Is the current challenge for India one of cohesiveness for the 1.4 billion? Do we need to be united under a single identity? Do we need to represent the past in a way that presents a singular story?
Implications of ChatGPT
A lot has been said recently about ChatGPT, the AI based language model that is capable of understanding and generating natural language text, and can be used for a variety of tasks such as text completion, translation, summarization, and even writing code. While ChatGPT is able to produce pretty much any piece of text in a generic sort of way, it can do so because it selects from a massive amount of text data from the internet, books, and other sources. This allows it to generate responses that are often quite accurate and relevant to the input it receives. In a way it is mimicking what historians do when they interpret and analyze information.
I asked ChatGPT whether children in school could understand complexities in history. This was its answer: “It depends on the age and developmental level of the children, as well as how the complexities of history are presented to them. Young children may not be able to fully understand or appreciate the complexities of history, but they can still be introduced to key concepts and ideas in age-appropriate ways. For example, young children can learn about different cultures and traditions, or about important historical figures and events, through stories, games, and hands-on activities.”
“As children get older, they can begin to engage with more complex historical concepts and ideas. For example, middle and high school students can be introduced to different historical perspectives and interpretations, and encouraged to think critically about the sources and evidence used to support these perspectives. While it may be challenging to fully convey the complexities of history to school age children, it is important to expose them to these ideas in age-appropriate ways. By doing so, we can help them develop a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the past, and encourage them to think critically about the world around them.”
Historians are expected to examine primary and secondary sources and consider the historical, cultural, and social context of the time they are studying in order to better understand the significance of events and can use their judgment to interpret and make sense of them.
ChatGPT in a reductive similarity, uses text data previously available on the internet to generate responses and insights and does not have the ability to question the validity or completeness of that data. The reason why teachers worry is because most times, students are expected to do what ChatGPT is doing, with the textbook as the only source of data.
Studying history like a historian, using different sources of information, relying on more than just one set of voices, encourages students to synthesize different perspectives on social norms, customs, beliefs, and institutions and to develop analytical skills while identifying what criteria makes knowledge “factually correct” and when it is a suitable candidate for assumptions and downright lies. The printed word that has thus far been treated as well researched and therefore believable, is now possibly a concocted fairytale from an uninspired storyteller.
|Student voice – Vighnesh P, PhD Candidate, Department of History, Ashoka University: I was initially drawn towards history after playing the video game Age of Empires. The game created by the collaboration of Microsoft games and Ensemble studios enabled the players to build a civilization. By training an army, improving your economy, and going to battle with your enemies all the while learning about its historical significance was enough to influence my mind.
Gradually, I was drawn into the field of history altogether. Before studying history at a university level, my introduction to the discipline was always about kings, armies, empires and violence. However, university education coupled with excellent teachers helped me to think about history in a different way. I was able to see the people who made history happen. I was deeply engaged in micro and macro social processes that enabled history to happen. These radical developments would not have been possible without my excellent teachers. They taught me to read texts closely and construct arguments based on that. Now, these materials depend upon the period in which a historian chooses to write. I was interested in modern, global and contemporary world such that the materials I was using to understand the world around me was textual and oral.
Nonetheless, by taking up a primary source, for instance: the Macaulay’s Minute to Indian Education, my teachers helped me to read it very closely and asked me to write a basic history out of it. As every other first-timer, I produced a bland history from that material. However, my teachers helped me see the world in which Macaulay produced that minute, and a world beyond those few pages.
With this new perspective on viewing these primary sources, I understood the necessity of reading and writing history properly. These ideas were not imparted to us in school, where we are mechanistically taught to study dates by heart. However, that was not the case in advanced studies.
Overall, by studying history, it helped me to see a world beyond the textual interpretations. It coloured the world beautifully and gave the historical characters a breath of life. Therefore, I am forever indebted to my teachers who made me fall in love with history.
Facts and truths
The etymology of the term “history” is from the ancient Greek word “historia,” which means “knowledge acquired by investigation,” or “research.” Six thousand years of civilization provide adequate sources of knowledge to historians to puzzle over and interpret in surprisingly different ways.
The length and breadth of this knowledge creates an interesting challenge. What is included? What gets left out? Who decides? It is only when you read the history of a discipline, that you discover the manner in which theories and paradigms were constructed and the reasons why they were discarded with great difficulty in favour of a newer theory that validated the discoveries made in the field.
“The philosopher Thomas Kuhn has argued that scientists build their conception of reality around certain specific ‘paradigms’. A paradigm is not a theory as such, but a framework of thought – a conceptual scheme – around which the data of experiment and observation are organized. From time to time in the history of ideas, a shift occurs in the basic paradigm. When this happens, not only do scientific theories change, but the scientists’ conception of the world changes as well”.6
It usually takes a long time for a fact to be accepted – as was the question of the center of the universe which began with the Greeks and was taken up by Copernicus, Keppler and Galileo. The church eventually had to accept the ‘fact’ that the earth was not the center of the universe.
Today there are enough instances of market forces (like the pharmaceutical industry) and political machinations (as in the case of the Narmada Dam) obscuring certain discoveries – in which case only when significant problems occur will those involved admit to their existence (and the problems may have to be massive – like nuclear spillage).7
Facts that cannot be ‘proved’ except through inference are leading scientists into imaginative speculations like the many universes theory in quantum physics. Other facts like the universality of Newtonian physics have been easier to disprove due to the amazing advancement of technology which is helping the scientist to measure with greater and greater precision and reach beyond the limits of the known universe.
This means giving up the idea that knowledge is the printed word, fixed and certain, unchangeable (‘akshar’ means immortal in sanskrit) – like our religious texts. Naturally, this is difficult to do because the printed word regarding the past has no possibility of experiential validation. Yuval Noah Harari argues that stories and myths have played a crucial role in human societies, providing people with a shared sense of identity and purpose. Stories and myths need not have artefacts – all they need is a large enough population that must believe in them. They survive on the community based storytelling traditions that continued across generations until the printed book replaced them.
|Student voice 3 – Mahirr Ruparel, Bombay Scottish, Mumbai and Indus International, Bangalore:
The subject of history involves a lot of theory and a whole lot of attention to detail which is what intrigued me about it the most. After reading each chapter in my initial grades, my mind would be ﬁlled with curiosity about what happened next. That was how I started studying history making it my favourite subject at the time.
I studied history at the ICSE level, which taught me about the Indian side of history. When I moved to the IBDP curriculum, I opted to study history at a higher level. That opened the door to me studying the Imperial world with a very ﬁne lens. Not only did I study the imperial world thoroughly, but I also wrote page-long essays for my internal assessments; not once did I ﬁnd that exhausting.
After completing my ICSE curriculum, I realized that certain components of what I had learned were skewed to be biased. One such example is the death of Subhash Chandra Bose. However, I was quite content with the education on history that was provided, making it a strong foundation for me to conduct further research on the topics I found most intriguing.
The teachers who taught me history have had long tenures in the subject; however, when I asked them questions through the lens that I understood a particular topic, most of those questions went unanswered and I had to ﬁnd answers to them myself. Quite a few topics were brushed over to save time as well: like understanding the Fall of Yugoslavia and Tito’s role in it.
I believe history is not a subject that every student can understand from the teachers’ lens all the more, I feel it is not a subject that every student takes the same way. I believe history should be made an optional subject in most curriculums after the basics so that the students who really understand the subject can go ahead and appreciate it further.
In a world that has “whatsapp university” and social media domination, in which feminist theory is less known and “Me Too” is virally popular, in which pronouns he, she, they are commonplace, cryptocurrency is challenging digital currency and the end of the world is announced periodically by climate change scientists, it becomes increasingly surreal for a student to be studying a selective history because the past provides an identity. Do our youth want an identity rooted in the past? Or have they become aspirational and willing to embrace an imaginary present and an unimaginable future like science fiction writers? “We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we can imagine”, says Yuval Noah Harari, in Sapiens, A brief history of Humankind 2015.
Last weekend I attended one of thousands of street parties celebrating the coronation of Charles III in a democratic country that once colonized others and is torn between the astonishment of achieving such a feat and the shame of remembering. The street party was 50% white and the remainder was made up of people who migrated from the colonized countries or were brought as slaves. A dhol was beaten to rustic Punjabi songs; barbecues and vegetarian fare sat cheek by jowl and the grand finale was Irish set dancing. There was the ubiquitous consumption of a multi-cultural cuisine amidst sharing and multi-ethnic bonhomie. Perhaps as they danced, sang, drank and ate together, the rich irony of the celebration rose and fell in their collective unconscious. A multitude of fragmented worlds collided into a kaleidoscope of history. Long live the King?
A long way from being a subject and no longer a young democracy, we have found another fact for our textbooks. India had been declared the most populous country in the world without counting the refugees. Bureaucratic papers provide the counted a sense of legitimacy and identity. We won’t be looking for it in our history, Chandita.
- National Council for Science and Technology; director, Chandita Mukherjee (1989). Bharat ki Chhap (a film series on the history of science and technology in the Indian subcontinent. Bombay: Comet Project, Topiwala Lane School.
- NEP2020 paragraph 22.2.
- Class 8 textbook of NCERT downloaded from https://ncert.nic.in/textbook.php?hess2=1-8 on May 9, 2023.
- Paul Davies & John Gribbon. The Matter Myth, Beyond Chaos and Complexity, 1991, Penguin Books, pp1.
- It is interesting that in fields such as psychology or sociology that a tremendous multiplicity exists uneasily, simultaneously. The concept of ‘eclectic practice’ comes from the existence of diverse viewpoints on the human being: behavioural, gestaltist, humanistic, existential, psychoanalytic. While many practitioners adopt a single viewpoint, and then need to denounce the other to insist that theirs is the ‘correct’ viewpoint, it is increasingly obvious, that the multiplicity helps the student to own the approach that is best suited to their requirements – which has the best fit with their needs. Similarly we have in medicine, ayurveda, homeopathy and allopathy or modern medicine. In personnel management we have the Japanese system and the American system.
The author is Co-founder and Executive Director of Adhyayan. She is currently catalyzing a committed learning community of educators across India to transform the learning of students. For more than three decades as an educator, researcher, funder, school and system leader and now edupreneur, she has worked towards ensuring ‘a good school for every child’. She can be reached at email@example.com.