Summary – The Hindu – Why History Matters so much?

(Practice Question – The teaching of history in schools needs to be given the importance it deserves. Comment. – 150 words).


Author: Krishna Kumar


Why teaching history is important?

History is an important subject because it moulds the outlook of the younger generation. By turning the past into a narrative, history creates a public ethos and influences culture. History shapes the perceptions of the young because children are impressionable. Children introduced to a certain version of the past at school acquire a disposition which can be politically mobilised in the future. The importance of History in shaping the larger political ethos of the country remains undiminished. Children depend on adults to learn about the past, and that is what makes history the most challenging school subject.

Why doesn’t the teaching of history is given the importance it deserves?

History cannot compete with science subjects in the market that shapes and controls education today. As public institutions, schools carry many burdens the society is not always aware of. Government schools cope with bureaucratic norms and private schools cope with parental pressure to maintain heightened competition. The natural sciences bear the brunt of this pressure. For the growing middle class, including the vast multitude of first-generation educated, science and mathematics represent the golden route to high income jobs in medicine and engineering, including information technology. The social sciences and humanities do not figure in this landscape, yet they also suffer the consequences of the command that the entrance test culture wields over schools.

Political influence on teaching of history:

The history syllabus and textbooks have been at the heart of a deep political controversy in India. India is not alone in this respect. No country in the world is immune to debates about the past and how it should be presented to school children. To take just two instances, America’s discomfort with Hiroshima and Britain’s discomfort with Gandhi continue to be reflected in their school syllabi. The main reason why portrayal of the past in school textbooks arouses controversy is that a publicly shared past imparts a collective memory and identity. Textbooks are viewed as officially approved documents — even if they are privately produced and have no official sanction — and are therefore believed to be associated with state power.

However, the new history textbooks brought out by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) from 2006 onwards are a case in point. They have survived the change of government. One reason for their longevity is their professional quality. They have no single authors. Teams of eminent historians worked through deliberation and dialogue, first drafting a new syllabus and then the text itself. They represent the spirit of the National Curriculum Framework, 2005, which is still in place, which gives precedence to inquiry through direct exposure to evidence. The textbooks based on it do not narrate a long story. Instead, they enable children to explore different, often divergent, themes, such as lives of peasants and women, architectural styles, etc. Archival material is cited as evidence, and debates among historians are highlighted to demonstrate the difficulties of interpreting evidence.

Current challenges:

  • Older ways of teaching and conventional textbooks – the history teacher at school is often someone who has not studied history or enjoyed it. So, despite a shift in historiography, old problems continue to affect the system.
  • Perception that history is all about wars, kings and dates which makes it less attractive.
  • The tenacity of dividing India’s past into three long chunks: ancient, medieval and modern. These categories flatten out the complexity and richness of India’s history, wasting the opportunity of studying it with the aim of arousing curiosity and imparting tools of inquiry.
  • The examination system also reinforces flat perceptions by asking questions that are best answered with the help of guidebooks.
  • The intensely competitive environment that exists in our school system.

Ironically, poorly taught history matters even more than well-taught history, simply because when history does not arouse curiosity or impart the tools of analysis, it creates an emotional barrier for further inquiry.

Read the full article at The Hindu.