Why and How to Teach Indian History

The pedagogy involved as well as the content is in need of a drastic change if we truly want our descendants to have a grasp of their civilization and appreciate its uniqueness.

Why and How to Teach Indian History

The Problem

A decade ago, I took part in a workshop for students of Matriculation schools in Chennai. The workshop’s themes included Indian history, national pride, patriotism, and my talk was on “Why learn Indian history?” I answered this question the best I could, and was surprised when, after the talk, a group of students gathered around me, saying, “Sir, the way you presented history was very interesting—in our school, we call the history class a ‘sleeping pill’!”

A few months ago, it was teachers of a leading Coimbatore school that I addressed, on the theme “Why be proud of being Indian?—Twelve answers”. I presented as many achievements of Indian civilization which any Indian could take pride in without glorifying or romanticizing the past. At the end, several lady teachers came to me and expressed their appreciation; one of them, a computer science teacher, said with some verve, “For the first time I found history to be so exciting—I had always hated history!”

I could quote other such experiences, which have convinced me that a high proportion of Indian students feel either unmitigated boredom or unlimited contempt for the subject. This is a painful paradox in a land so rich, precisely, in history. There must be something dreadfully wrong in the way we handle the discipline. Of course, the method of mechanical exam-oriented rote learning is largely responsible for this state of things, and the day after the exam, most students have cleared their memory of the meaningless clutter of kings, wars, treaties and dates that had been crammed into their weary brains in the name of “history”.Get monthly updates 
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To start with, we tell the child about distant kings, cities and events without wondering what meaning they may hold for her. And they hold none. Whether the textbooks speak of the Harappans, the so-called Aryans, Ashoka, Shivaji, Rani Laxmibai or Tilak, they tell us nothing of how those people lived, viewed life, rejoiced or anguished, hoped and despaired, thought and expressed themselves—in a word, how they related to this land we call India. We hardly enter their minds, much less their hearts, and those makers of India remain as foreign to the Indian child as Napoleon or the Emperor of Japan.

Or if the books speak of proto-Republics, the Cholas, the Delhi Sultanate, the Moghul regime or the Vijayanagara Empire, again those polities are in no way related to the child’s life and interests. Were they less democratic than today’s regimes? Or more, perhaps? Or differently so? What was the common man’s lot under them? We encourage no discussion, no intelligent exploration, no real participation. Of course, this is true of most other subjects taught at school, but this mechanical pedagogy takes its toll in history more than elsewhere, unless the teacher takes exceptional care.

Another pedagogical issue is the chronological approach—usually from the Stone Age to post-Independent India. While this may be suited to the college level, it does not help the school student, especially in the lower classes, to get a grasp of the story. It would be much more effective to begin in the nineteenth or twentieth century, get hold of a local freedom fighter, see India through him or her eyes, move on to a local raja, visit his ruined fort and evoke the legends surrounding him, gradually rebuilding the setting of his life—his battles, his heroic acts or failures, his legacy. Not only would the pupils acquire some vivid awareness of their region, but the reconstructed scene would speak to them and would never be forgotten.

A few years ago, our organization conducted a workshop for teachers of Matriculation schools of the Coimbatore region, in which we asked the teachers of respective subjects to sit together and formulate what would, in their view, be an ideal educational approach. The teachers were surprised, expecting to sit silently through the usual boring speeches; but they rose to the challenge and produced what is virtually a charter for new school education. Here is what the history teachers recommended:

1. The history syllabus should be lightened: a few highlights from each period or dynasty are sufficient.

2. Historical facts should also be updated when necessary.

3. The student should be given freedom of thought in analysing history from different approaches.

4. History should also start with the local history—from district to State, and later, to the national history.

5. Brief highlights of world history are sufficient.

6. Visits to historical and archaeological sites should be encouraged.

7. Films and documentaries on various periods of Indian history can be useful aids.

8. The Western model and interpretation of history cannot be mechanically applied to the Indian context.

9. History should not be taught as a dead record of the past and should be used as a tool to learn from past achievements and failures.

We are admittedly very far from such an approach, yet every one of these steps is sensible and realistic.

A few years later, it was the turn of the students, and we interviewed (in writing through a detailed questionnaire) 11,000 of them across India. Some of them expressed their views on the subjects taught at school and history in particular: “Our present education system lacks the real Indian history.” Or, “In this system, we can’t know the real history, real culture of India.” Or again, “It lacks ‘Indianity’. It is too dependent on the West, especially as history is concerned.” These thoughts are by no means facile ones, but who will discuss them?

And here are a few thoughts about history we received when we asked the students if they could suggest specific changes in the present system that would make life at school more interesting:

1. “By taking the students to historical places, this would create an interest for different subjects.”

2. “History should be taught in the form of plays.”

3. “More practical work, more discussions and debates in class in order to stimulate the student’s mind. Interesting stories would add flavour to history classes.”

It seems to me that if these suggestions are fused with those of the teachers, we have a ready blueprint for a meaningful pedagogy of history in India.

The Meaning of History

But the problem is not limited to method. Whether we like it or not, India is not a nation like, say, Sweden or Mexico. It has not only a bewildering richness in human, linguistic and cultural terms but an unparalleled depth in time. More than a nation, India is a civilization, and our historical approach must reflect this larger dimension: When and how did this civilization begin? How did it manage to integrate the myriad cultures of the subcontinent into one recognizable whole? What kind of social and administrative systems did it evolve? What were its advances in art, in mathematics or astronomy, in technologies? Is it possible to define specific features of its culture? Did it borrow from other civilizations or enrich some of them, or both? Or did it conquer other lands and wipe out cultures there? And how did it manage to survive through millennia when all the other civilizations of the ancient world have long disappeared under the sands of Time?

Every great Indian has grappled with these questions, which in the end define Indian identity. Let me just quote Rabindranath Tagore in 1903:

“Our real ties are with the Bharatavarsha that lies outside our textbooks. If the history of this tie for a substantially long period gets lost, our soul loses its anchorage. After all, we are no weeds or parasitical plants in India. Over many hundreds of years, it is our roots, hundreds and thousands of them, that have occupied the very heart of Bharatavarsha. But, unfortunately, we are obliged to learn a brand of history that makes our children forget this very fact. It appears as if we are nobody in India; as if those who came from outside alone matter.”

And it appears that Indian students continue to be nobody in India: the colonial foundations of our history remain largely in place. As long as they are, the purpose of history teaching will not be met. As individuals, we are just that—separate entities thrown haphazardly in space and time. But with a proper historical perspective, we are no longer isolated individuals: we become part of a stream of civilization—an ancient stream, in India’s case, one that gives us identity and a sense of belonging. This is not an abstract feeling: identity is a concrete guide in life and a help at times of crisis, for it gives you the strength to stand on your two legs and to believe in yourself. It also builds up a national feeling; not the arrogant sense of superiority of the conqueror, but a legitimate pride in a long string of creditable achievements and generous contributions.

Then history becomes a living teaching that can shape and enrich young minds and hearts. The “aim and principle of a true national education,” wrote Sri Aurobindo in 1929, is “not, certainly, to ignore modern truth and knowledge, but to take our foundation on our own being, our own mind, our own spirit.”

About Author: Michel Danino

Born in 1956 at Honfleur (France) into a Jewish family recently emigrated from Morocco, from the age of fifteen Michel Danino was drawn to India, some of her great yogis, and soon to Sri Aurobindo and Mother and their view of evolution which gives a new meaning to our existence on this earth. In 1977, dissatisfied after four years of higher scientific studies, he left France for India, where he has since been living. A writer of numerous books including the bestseller, The Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati, he is currently a member of ICHR and a visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar. The Government of India awarded him the Padmashri (India's fourth highest civilian award) for his contribution towards Literature & Education.

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