Friday, September 16, 2011

Teaching History

I spent most of my reading time in the last few months reading up on history. It was not a conscious choice; an improbable turn of chance caused four books on the subject to fall on my lap one after the other. The selection was eclectic and covered diverse periods and perspective.

I started with a history of China and Japan from Will Durant’s classic, “The Story of Civilization”. Then followed “A People’s History of the World” (Chris Harman), a persuasively different-and somewhat controversial- view of history from prehistoric time. While the mind was still taking in the view, Nilakanta Sastry’s scholarly “A History of South India” cried for attention.  Then it was off to the New World to read “The Civil War Memoir of Philip Daingerfield Stephenson, D.D”, a Confederate soldier’s account of the American Civil War.(The Confederates were on the losing side. History is as much about the losers as those who vanquished them)

My interest in History was kindled in 1975 when I came across the complete set of Durant’s “The Story of  Civilization” in the reference section of the library at the Regional Engineering College (now National Institute of Technology), Warangal. The volumes had gathered dust and definitely looked out place amid all the material on science and engineering. I could not read the full set, but managed parts from each volume.

Warangal is famous for its beautiful Thousand Pillar temple; it was also the capital of the powerful Kakatiya Empire. This much is common knowledge. But, how many know the significant role some of its kings played in delaying the advance of Muslim rule in southern India? How many of us know enough to appreciate that the history of South India is an integral part of the history of India. This leads me to the problem.

The problem lies in our horribly warped approach to teaching. History is taught from a narrow regional bias.  By itself this need not be a bad thing if the learning process draws students out of their immediate geographical area and makes them appreciate the bigger influences around them. Unfortunately, this is not happening.  

History is much more than a series of dates and bloody conquests. It is a continuum. Regardless of perspective, it is a record of humanity’s aspirations, struggle, achievements and failures.  More importantly, the fortunes and destinies of different peoples and cultures are interlinked. This point has been completely missed in our textbooks and teaching methods.

Arts and humanities do not get equal treatment with science in the education space. Simply put, they are treated as an unavoidable distraction in a teacher or parent’s drive to make his or her child a successful doctor, engineer, techie or whatever it is that our  regards as  success. As a consequence, the study of history is a desultory exercise in remembering a few dates, people and events without really appreciating the bigger picture.

In Durant’s words, history is “not a lifeless chronicle but a … humanizing visualization”. Events are shaped as much, if not more, by people’s aspirations as by quest for personal glory. It is this that we must learn to appreciate. We live in a diverse and complex society. I cannot think of a better way (than studying history) to understand people who are different from us. I believe that a proper understanding of its history enhances a society’s awareness of itself as well its sense of destiny.

Such an approach will place a huge demand on the intellectual resources of our educators. But isn’t that what  teaching and learning , especially of the arts and humanities, is all about- to energize our individual and collective intellect?                                                                                                                                    .

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