Teaching history


Is the subject of history a dying subject that no one in India seems to want to study anymore? The way it has been taught so far in Indian schools, it’s a miracle the subject still flourishes, says E. Vijayalakshmi Rajan.

Ihad a history teacher in primary school, who taught us the major civilisations of the world. I still remember her description of the Indus Valley Civilisation’s town planning. The way she described the drainage system and the Great Bath, I was transfixed. Her description was so vivid, her explanations so lucid, I was transported to that era. That’s how history should be taught, I had exulted. That teacher ignited such a passion for the subject, that I was to pursue the subject for my under-graduation too.

But after her, it was only in the last year of my under-graduation that I found another teacher, this time who taught International Relations, who could similarly bring alive the subject. For the rest of the years, I had a slew of teachers who often mixed up dynasties, and eras and narrated history in the most dry and unappealing manner possible. Consequently, most of my peers hated history with a singular passion.

History is a peculiar subject. It has so many stories embedded in it and colourful tales of people (kings, emperors, leaders, philosophers, influencers) and yet, it has reams of dates and chronologies of dynasties too. No one can ever claim to love learning up dates of feats by people long gone. But if the interest in the rest is ignited, learning up dates becomes a worthwhile chore.

History is actually many stories!
I have narrated to my son, who is now 11, many stories of our Independence movement from the book on India’s freedom movement, ironically written by a Frenchman Dominique Lapierre and an American, Larry Collins, titled Freedom at Midnight. This is an absolutely seminal work on our freedom movement, albeit seeming to favour our last Viceroy Lord Mountbatten’s version of our freedom struggle. Yet, it is also much corroborated by events recorded elsewhere, in others’ versions too. There are such delightful anecdotes of the leaders who strode the stage then, making them more human, more likeable. It is history on a breeze. My son is so entranced by these stories that he’s completely taken even by the dry rendering of history he learns at school. I have often found him bent over his school text book, asking me questions, a curious learner. I don’t take all the credit for his interest, but it’s true that narrating to him off-beat facts and anecdotes about historical figures, has made him interested in the subject.

I also give credit to the Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) comics for sustaining this interest. The comics with evocative illustrations cover every aspect of history one can think of. It’s largely well presented, and not a prejudiced rendering too. Stories told in a few pages, but with a wealth of information. Long live ACK!

Teaching history
How then, must history be taught? One may argue that every event cannot be presented with a flourish, nor every historical figure made colourful and interesting. So, how can history be taught to make it more attractive? First of all, I think, one has to ‘re-humanise’ history. History is primarily about people. Battles, wars and monuments come later. Yet, we often present historical characters as great people, often put on a high pedestal, often without any flaws. Or we dash them to the ground, branding them as villains, Oh, no! Kings need to be seen as mortals, their foibles dissected, their interests and what make them what they were, discussed. We need to set them in the setting of their times, judge them accordingly. We need to talk about interesting anecdotes about them and the events of their times, to make them more human, more appealing.

In school we were taught about Gandhi and Nehru in such pious tones that it’s a wonder more of us didn’t grow up hating them. There is no need, for instance, to put Mahatma Gandhi on a pedestal. I personally believe he was one of the most far-sighted and greatest men to have walked on this earth. But while we eulogise him (though today most often he is reviled, than eulogised), we also have to treat him as a person who has his flaws. And yet, such ‘flaws’ don’t take away from his revolutionary ideas and his foresight, they only make us understand and appreciate him more. And the onus is ultimately on the teachers. If the teachers teaching history love the subject, everything else will naturally follow. Are there such teachers out there, especially given the paucity of ‘good’ teachers today?

E. Vijayalakshmi Rajan

E. Vijayalakshmi Rajan is Assistant Editor, One India One People.