How History Dies in the Syllabus*
If historians can’t at times makes sense of history, what hope do regular folk have? This was one of the threads discussed at the session titled ‘Skewed history: How history dies in the syllabus’ at the opening day of the KLF on Friday.
Moderated by Baela Raza Jamil, a public policy specialist, the session raised questions regarding the business of crafting history within the framework of Pakistan, and the several disruptions that halted the teaching of history, which was then replaced by Pakistan Studies.
Educationist and author of The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians, Anam Zakaria introduced the aspect of how personal recollections or memories can also be changed and manipulated according to the state narrative.
“Before we resurrect history and make changes, it is important to understand that the syllabus does not exist in a vacuum; it exists within the larger mainstream discourse of society. And high history, oral history or even micro-perspectives all inform each [other] and get entrenched.
“To understand how we are interpreting history, we need to first find out where are the teachers coming from and what are their different sources as they are not just using textbooks.”
Oral history, she believes, plays a very important role as what you hear from family, and their experiences, shape your perspective on historical events.
Qasim Aslam’s work has also incorporated how historical narratives have been shaped by states, and he is co-founder of The History Project Limited, which is a dual-narrative approach that pitted the Pakistani and Indian versions of the same event in history against one another.
Aslam recalled the origins of the project and how it took the two contradictory versions to the classroom for Pakistani and Indian students to judge.
“What we realised in our interactions was that it is the questions that stand the test of time, and the answers become outdated.”
Another problem they observed in the classroom, which he believes is not just restricted to the discipline of history but can be generalised to the entire education system, is how the “assessment system fundamentally drives what is going to happen inside the classroom.”
If a child, he explained, writes something that is not mentioned in his textbook, he is derided by his teachers as well as by society and the system at large.
Abbas Husain, director of the Teachers’ Development Centre, agreed with Aslam and shared his experience of working in close connection with teachers.
Husain believes that the problem is not so much the quality or the lack thereof of the textbooks used in schools. “The issue is of the enormous weightage the teacher gives to the textbook. This is a kind of enslavement to it with the teacher believing that everything written in the textbook ought to be regurgitated by the child, in the notepaper, in the examination answer, within an examination system that fosters this kind of intellectual study.”
Historian Newal Osman, who also teaches university students, shared how teaching freshmen history and questioning their definition of it yielded some interesting responses.
“History is essentially a version of the past and that raises the question of whose version is it. This opens up within them the possibility of a multiplicity of narratives.
“History is looking at something which is absent, as it involves studying the past which has definitively gone and we have to construct a version of it using limited sources and traces. So it can never be a complete version of the past and remains fragmented,” she explained.
History must be taught, she explained, in a manner which allows students to look closely into their prejudices, which is clearly lacking from the primary and secondary level in schools in Pakistan.
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