To Be Or Not To Be – Teaching And Writing History (part 1)
By Dr Fatima Hussain
The recent spate of controversies regarding what is fit to be taught to students as culture and history involving and important educational institution and a publishing house, has raised a multitude of questions regarding our education system. These question are more pronounced in the context like history of social science subjects which are given a step-motherly treatment, vis-à-vis science and commerce subjects.
Notwithstanding these controversies, it cannot be denied that it is the writers and teachers of history upon whom lies the great responsibility to steer clear from such controversies and engage themselves in building a generation that is progressive, secular and forward-looking through their writings and teachings.
It is widely believed that bright students do not opt for social sciences. History, as a part of social science, has also its share of such belief. Students grow up with a bias that learning history is boring and if you happen to suffer bouts of insomnia open your history text book in order to experience the joys of instant sleep to many, the study of history is all about memorising facts and dates.
Existence of such negative attitudes towards social sciences, in general and history in particular, needs to be recognised and corrective measures taken to change such attitudes. History has few takers in the contemporary education structure. Such notions and competitiveness for achievement have has a negative effect on the popularity of history as a subject at the plus two and undergraduate levels. Mathematical and science based areas of knowledge involving rationality and high levels of abstraction are construed more relevant to the public sphere. They certainly have a primary position in many government and private sector undertakings. They are also considered more masculine as they instil a false sense of pride among those who opt for them on the basis of marks. Subjects that involve greater degree of personal, social, communicative and affective modes of thought are seen as more relevant to the private sphere and are gendered as feminine. Arguably, history spans both spheres, as it has an important public dimension. Yet many of the skills required for its effective study communicative skills, for example, which have erstwhile been gendered as feminine, are now considered equality important for the public sphere and for both sexes. This perception has to be viewed in the context of the postindustrial economy in which communication skills have a far higher profile than in the past.
Finally what constitutes learning in society is also important. Historically, our society has valued the lone intellectual learning at its highest levels. As a result, learning that is seen as collaborative, negotiated and engaging personal perspective has often not been held in high esteem. History has not been recognised as a subject that is autonomous. As a consequence, students of history were less likely to be judged as meaningful or potential learners. However, there is a considerable change in the perception now. Collaborative and communicative skills are increasingly more highly prized than lone intellectual activity. This puts history on demand, as it helps sharpen communicative skills.
Often, I have been the object of puzzled stares from youngsters, whenever I told them that history is an interesting and useful subject. The unfortunate adolescent needs to look beyond the narrow career choices generally attributed to history. Today, history needs a marketing strategy like any other brand in the market. For example, women's history can provide students with fresh and intriguing access points to significant social and political trends which may come handy while working for an NGO or for journalism or the corporate world.
In today's world, people need to demonstrate initiative, enquiry and understanding which can be developed though investigative learning are subjects like history. The study of history is essential for a well-rounded individual who is capable enthusiastic, imaginative and knowledgeable apart from being compassionate. It has the power to develop investigative and problem solving skills as well as analytical and empathetic thinking useful in many career options.
But, if history can provide such wider prospect, why isn't it a subject which is as coveted, if not more as science and mathematically aligned subjects. The problem largely lies in the way history is taught at the school and undergraduate levels. A normal history class witnesses a dull-faced teacher ranting off a lecture or worse, reading from the text (which is the general practice in schools). Equally outdated is the pattern of evaluation of the performance of the students.
Only, teachers who are extremely motivated should be assigned the task of teaching history, for lovers of history are made not born. The sheer fascination and curiosity on the teacher's face and in the teacher's voice act like a mirror. It is to be kept in mind that a weakly structured classroom regime can be crushingly dull for students.
The writer is an associate professor of history at the Delhi University, India