I joined Rajghat Besant School, Varanasi, in July 2009 as a resource person to teach Class XII students. The understanding at that time was that if the school and I felt comfortable with each other, ‘we could look at a long term arrangement.’ But I was not focused on the long-term at that stage.
My career path until I came to Varanasi was constantly shifting direction: museum docent1, research assistant, freelance journalist, restoration artist. Not unlike many of my generation, I believed that each job was an opportunity to learn whatever I felt was valuable and then move on. Teaching history would prove to be the catalyst for a transformation in this conviction.
I would like to share some of my explorations as a student of history, a new teacher, and a co-learner with my students. I began as a teacher with the age-old, all-encompassing question, ‘What is History?’, also the title of Professor EH Carr’s influential book. Carr’s critics—of whom there are many—would say that he was outdated even as he was delivering his renowned lectures at Cambridge in 1961. But, like the teachers who taught me, I began as a new teacher of history with Carr’s classifications, ‘facts of the past’ and ‘historical facts’, in mind. Why do certain facts form the content of ‘history, ’ while others are forgotten?
My diary records:
July 6, 2009
The students, after a pleasant round of introductions, looked rather unhappy when we ‘wasted’ a class on reading three paragraphs from the preface of the course book that was not even in the syllabus! I reacted by asking them why they had opted for History. In my mind, I was asking, ‘If this bores you, why bother choosing it?’ Apart from answers like ‘not much choice here at the school’ and ‘board exam pattern’, some students said, ‘Obviously we study History to learn from the mistakes of the past.’
I pressed them. ‘How many people have you heard say that?’
‘Countless, ’ they replied defiantly. ‘And we also wrote this in middle school as the definition of History.’ I had a class full of eighteen-year-olds who seemed to have never questioned what they learned in middle school. I also realized that these students were about to form an opinion of me as a complete odd-ball and that opinion may travel through the corridors, swiftly turning into a fixed assessment. But I still held my ground, intent on challenging their notions of history. I was hoping to hear more voices of dissent.
‘Maybe we do not always learn from our mistakes, ’ I argued. ‘Perhaps history can only help us to be more intelligent about the present.’ I extended our class into the recess, though the expected groans of complaint were subdued. Murmurs of a discussion had begun about why a reader of any kind of text, especially a historical text, must be full of speculation. How is it that certain events become the facts of history? Before we finished for the day, I declared: ‘We cannot learn unless we all participate in a dialogue to question what we are learning in class.’ The only way we could do so was by being participative, open and honest, I said. ‘I hope in the next class, you will all have more sceptical responses to share. I want a class full of Doubting Thomases.’
I realized much later that it was only my beginner’s luck that this declaration had not unleashed a surge of unbridled questioning. It could have been impossible to control such a group of argumentative eighteen-year-olds! In retrospect, I feel the class ultimately held together because we were all treading into the unknown. In a way, we transcended that formal barrier of a teacher perceived as knowing it all. We were learning together.
July 8, 2009
Today we used objects our eyes spotted in the classroom as case studies for historical analysis. We discussed why we believe the history of certain objects or events to be more important than the history of a ball-point pen, for instance, or a salwar kameez. Could the same objects whose histories we deem unimportant be seen in a completely different light by another person? Could they reveal stories and experiences integral to all of our lives? I daresay the class has adjusted to my quirkiness and we have started to open doors for each other to a cognitive understanding of our subject. We started Chapter One of the wonderful NCERT textbook.
August 10, 2009
Today was a rather strange day with my students. They were interested, but I was not with them in how we were examining the topic ‘Rebels and Raj, ’ the events surrounding 1857. I have no reasons to complain about the discussion. By now we have graduated to examining ‘isms’ and, understandably, colonialism was the most debated ‘ism’. The students debated with gusto. They have started to critically examine the psychology of a historian. But I realized that though we had initiated a process of intellectual discussion, it was limited to questioning, rejecting, enquiring and unlearning. Where would all this lead? Was it possible to go deeper? The students will do the exam; I will finish the course, but are we asking the right questions through this critical thinking or are we stuck in a superficial analysis? Will these classroom discussions help us in making intelligent decisions?
August 12, 2009
We finished the chapter ‘Rebels and Raj’ today with an interesting classroom discussion. But I am still wrestling with how to most effectively analyze this momentous period. The events of 1857 are usually called the turning point in modern Indian history. I wonder whether it was also a turning point in the so-called rebels’ consciousness. Were they struggling in some way with the question of how to build a ‘new society’? Perhaps we are swimming in the topic’s superficialities and failing to recognize their ongoing relevance. Have the power structures that the actors of 1857 were rebelling against actually changed today? I struggle with how to encourage the student to consider whether we still face similar oppressions and disharmonies. How can we debate this question effectively while remaining true to the unique historical circumstances of 1857? As Toon Zweers has written, ‘History can be mirror in which we see ourselves and the world we live in, but it is only through hard work that we get to see an accurate picture.’ If there is confusion within me about the nature of hard work to arrive at that accurate picture, then how can I possibly be a teacher to students of history? I do not have the answer to that yet.
September 30, 2009
Today, we interrogated the broadly accepted image of Gandhiji and why he came to be seen as a messiah. Slowly, the students began to examine what it means to categorize certain events and emotions as based on ‘fact’ and others on ‘fiction, ’ such as the competing characterizations of Gandhiji as either a healer and miracle worker or a shrewd politician. We spoke about discipline and austerity, and what they mean for our understanding of a religious mind. I hope that this topic will bring us closer together as budding historians.
November 16, 2009
We spoke about Partition. I could have chosen to read graphic accounts of the worst violence of the period, as a way to present the horrors and engage the students emotionally. But instead I read out a short story by Ismat Chugtai that explored how members of rival communities supported each other in spite of the communal conflict. I wanted to avoid accounts that only stressed the impact of violence on one community or another. Through this I hoped we could examine claims and counter-claims about who is most affected by violence. One of the students felt we should be asking whether history demonstrates that humans overall are inherently violent. Another questioned, to my great surprise, why we seem to not consider the burning of a Dalit’s home in eastern Uttar Pradesh as historically important. After all, she wondered, don’t these instances also constitute ‘facts of the past’?
November 17, 2009
Today we read the published letters and correspondence of early Congress leaders as primary sources. Each student had a different source at hand and we sat together to discuss whether we could find whatever may be unsaid and unwritten but still conveyed in the letters. We exchanged the sources after presenting our thoughts and found that the next person doing the interpreting could not help but be influenced by the first person’s view, even if it was a contrary one. We realized that the bulk of historical interpretation is either derived or reactionary. It is difficult to remain uninfluenced by an earlier trend or prevailing stream of thought.
November 20, 2009
We have finished our course and are reviewing the chapters from the point of view of the exam. I can feel the relationship between me and the students growing. We miss our class discussions. The quality of our interactions has changed now; they have grown much deeper. The students and I reflect upon our earlier discussions in our free time and think together about the figures and thinkers we studied. I discovered that their library check-out lists include heavyweights like Collingwood, Toynbee and Foucault. I am a little worried about the exam results. They will sit for their board exam in less than 80 days and they want to go on discussing!
December 14, 2009
Two of my students came over to talk about their future plans. A world of opportunities is open to them and they must make a careful selection. We spoke about various options and analyzed the information they had about these options just as we would historical sources. The colleges’ or institutes’ websites state their objectives and intent, providing background about their programs. Reviews from current and former students are also available. So we examined these ‘primary sources’ the way a historian would. We approached them with clarity of mind, corroborating facts, interpreting assertions, and relating the information with individual priorities and interests. I believe the experience was a rich and enlightening one for the students.
I continue to question and reflect on my first year as a teacher. I wonder whether the students are conscious of how far they have travelled in thinking more deeply. The students performed well in their exams, but I also observed that for many of them the exam results were secondary to a newly discovered passion for learning. In retrospect, I have come to see our classes as a way to develop a frame on which a lifetime of learning can be built. At the beginning of class many students showed reluctance to even begin that process of learning. I remember telling them that many of us may have an image of the historian as a bespectacled eccentric, surrounded by a sea of books and possessed of that singular skill we all seem to see as vital to any student of history: a sharp memory. Yet for the modern historian, I explained, dates, names, and other such information is a click away. A critical, analytical mind is in fact the most fundamental tool for any historian. The study of history unravels accepted notions of societies about the past and reconstructs them based on careful weighing of perception and fact. My students discovered that these methods of the historian provide important insights that not only improve their marks, but also clarify their own lives’ paths.
This learning with the students has also clarified my life’s path. The experiences of the past year have challenged and inspired me in ways I had never found in other professional pursuits. Whereas earlier I had felt as if I was performing a job with limited scope for new learning, now I am in awe of the profound and seemingly infinite possibilities before me. Once I had felt an urge to move from place to place, but now, for the first time in my life, I am eager and excited to evolve within one pursuit. Simply put, teaching history has become my vocation.
The current batch at the Rajghat Besant School has brought fresh challenges. Occasionally it has been a struggle to bring calm to the noise in their young minds. Carr notes that historians must have an imaginative understanding of their students’ minds, developing a style of teaching that builds on their thoughts. Considering this, there was no way I could simply dictate notes and flag important questions. My learning for this year has been the value in teaching of simply slowing down. Each mind requires its own duration of time, its own space to explore; thriving when learning is in sync with its unique rhythm. Six months into their coursework now, I can see growing clarity and critical thinking in the students’ arguments. We have still been working on writing answers that are faithful to the format and structure of the board exam. But even within that constraint the independence of their young minds is shining through. I have discovered this year that just as each student learns differently, each batch also moves at its own pace. Some may discuss less, yet absorb more. Each perceives the past differently and reaches conclusions along distinct pathways. I must analyze their understandings, adapting our discussions to their unique perspectives. Thus, as I continue learning how to teach the study of history, I keep the tools of a historian close at hand.
1. Educators trained to further the public’s understanding of the cultural and historical collections of an institution, including local and national museums, zoos, historical landmarks, and parks.