Amongst the many travesties within our education system, one of the most unfortunate is the disdain students in school have developed for social sciences, especially history.
A nation with the oldest civilisation in the world has failed to design a curriculum that evokes interest and inquisitiveness in the mind of its young citizens, even after more than 70 years of independence from the British Raj, and even with all the literature locked in libraries and lost on the Internet. What a tragedy.
Even though it took almost seven years, the move of the department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education to take up reforms to improve design of schoolbooks, address the distortion of facts, lack of coverage of certain eras of Indian history and national heroes, is a welcome step.
However, some passionate and well-meaning observers and stakeholders have confused the upgradation of history textbooks as an opportunity to highlight only certain eras. For instance, that of Hindu empires given the lack of attention they have received for decades within the school curriculum, or the elimination of chapters on Mughal Empire or Delhi Sultanate, or even making the entire subject about Vedic studies.
Folks, please calm down.
While there is absolutely no doubt or deliberation needed when it comes to addressing the distorted facts in our history textbooks, the same that makes heroes out of blood-thirsty slaughterers of the Mughal Empire or make extremists out of national heroes who sacrificed their lives at age of 23, the larger discussion must be around the design of the history textbooks, and not the distortion alone.
The right intent of many well-meaning individuals, educationalists, stakeholders, and even parents warrants the right and a rational approach. While focussing on the content, no lapses must also be allowed in the design, especially for students between Class VI and Class X.
However, to address the design concerns some uncomfortable realities, plaguing the current curriculum must be acknowledged for it is not without reason that students have a strong dislike for history in school.
Firstly, the content is not updated regularly with new findings. The structuring of the curriculum is bland and outdated, and in most places, lack continuity.
Ancient history is restricted to the Indus Valley era, the medieval portion is all about sultans and Mughals, and modern history is all about one man against an empire.
In a globalised century, there is no importance for world history, barring two revolutions, the French and Russian. Against Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) books, Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) recommended National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) books come across as Internet Explorer against Google Chrome. Put simply, history is not fun enough.
Two, there is little incentive for students to pursue history. While for students of science and mathematics supplementary books are a norm, for students of history, it is cliched guides like those in the 1980s which are mere compilations of questions. Some students simply memorise the answers, line by line, and vomit them out in the examination.
The lack of incentive stems from two reasons. One, mathematics and science are essential for engineering and medical science aspirants, and for the ones wishing to pursue commerce, studying history is an unnecessary burden.
For those who may want to pursue programmes in humanities and arts, the curriculum between Class VI and Class X sets a weak foundation, given the entire syllabus is repeated and elaborated in higher classes or undergraduate courses.
Thus, for the students genuinely interested in the subject, the interest is dented by the poor curriculum, and for the students focusing on other subjects, this becomes academic baggage they have to carry for five years.
However, there are few ways to fix this, and this would require slight tinkering with the human resources capacity and the examination process.
Firstly, the subject itself needs a bit of division and distribution.
Currently, in the five years until Class X, students are introduced to a bit of everything. This serves no purpose, for the students are acquainted with numerous periods of history, but do not learn about any single period properly. Largely, the focus is on Delhi Sultanate, Mughal Empire, some scattered events of the national movement, and art and culture.
Thus, the first design revision must be to offer five different disciplines under history. Once successful, this model can be implemented for polity, geography, and economics as well.
The first two years until Class VII, students should be taught the basics of history, its need, the eras and great empires, the timeline of the last five millenniums of the subcontinent, and the last few centuries when it comes to world history.
Merely simplifying introductions for students that young, not too elaborate to confuse them, yet detailed enough for them to understand what interests them.
Starting from Class VIII, for the next three years, the students must be allowed to choose one of the five disciplines under the subject.
For instance, ancient Indian history until 1000 AD, medieval Indian history until the early 1700s, modern history starting from the 1700s until the events of late 2010s, world history from the last three centuries — starting from the industrial revolution to as recent as the coronavirus pandemic — and for the ones who intend to pursue commerce in the future, the economic history of India.
The idea behind having five disciplines is to help students learn and understand about one period thoroughly, rather than imbibing insufficient information and lessons about the entire timeline. Further, the personal interest of each student would guide their choice of the discipline.
Students, guided by parents and peer pressure, these days, early on in their schooling life, are quite certain of their pursuits post Class X, and therefore, can make their selections accordingly. For the ones interested in commerce, economic history will make far more sense than cultural history, and for the ones interested in moving abroad, a three-year study in world history may prove helpful.
The second design revision must be done with regard to our national heroes, well beyond the Delhi Sultanate. However, squeezing many of them in multiple chapters only adds to the rote process, and eliminates any learning or imparting of lessons.
Thus, NCERT must introduce a supplementary book for history, focusing on one national hero, while giving an option to the students. As with most other NCERT books, the supplementary books must be published in regional languages as well, starting from Hindi.
Supplementary books are already in place for mathematics, sciences, English and Hindi. For social sciences, these books are usually the question compilations.
The supplementary book could be as short as 60 pages in Class VIII and as elaborate as 150 pages in Class X, complete with graphics, timelines, and links to other interactive material online, uploaded by the NCERT. To match the five disciplines, a pool of 75 national figures from the past can be created (15 for each discipline thus five supplementary options between Class VIII and Class X).
For instance, for students in Maharashtra, a supplementary book about Chhatrapati Shivaji would be preferred, while students in Punjab would be keen on the life of Maharaja Ranjit Singh or Bhagat Singh.
Students in Gujarat would want to learn more about Sardar Patel while the schools in Lutyens’ Delhi would want to supplement their main course with the life of Jawaharlal Nehru. How about ensuring a supplementary book on Homi J Bhabha for engineers or Srinivasa Ramanujan for budding statisticians?
Ideally, NCERT, through an external party, must also create animated movies ranging from 60-minutes (Class VIII) to 120-minutes (Class X) on each of the 75 heroes. These names could be revised from time to time, but the visual content must be made freely available on YouTube. The student will only be able to study three national figures of the 75 but should have access to all animations nevertheless.
However, it cannot be stated enough that these design revisions would require recalibrating the textbooks entirely and having new authors onboard, a much-needed change from the primitive syllabus and structure shackling the students today. Special attention must be paid to ensure the integrity of the content.
History, as a subject in school, must not be about rote memorisation or about acquainting students with only a few kings, queens, battles, or empires, but about creating thinkers. The reformed design would add to the curiosity of many students who may quit history after Class X but would choose to sustain their interest in the subject by becoming avid non-fiction readers.
Addressing fact distortions is the lowest-hanging fruit and the simplest part of the larger problem we are dealing with in our schools today. By only focusing on distortion, the observers would be doing a disservice to the cause.
Only through a complete design revamp can we give the new generation of students, distracted by the fast-moving world of mathematics and sciences, a reason to come back to history. The subject must be converted from unnecessary baggage to an unparalleled learning experience.
Literature worth 5,000 years and millions of students deserve better.
One hopes somebody in NCERT and CBSE is reading this.
Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_
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