My study of history would be incomplete if, after having surveyed the process of history, I failed to ask myself what history is…       


Among high school students in India one finds an extraordinary apathy towards History, a position which the subject shares along with other so-called ‘arts’ subjects. In fact one of the first questions I was faced with as a teacher of History at the higher secondary level was ‘Why should we study History?’ Being a person fascinated with History, I had never asked myself such a question. Finding an answer to this deceptively simple question was not as easy as one supposed. An attempt to answer the question would be in vain without an attempt to understand the very complexity of the subject.

History has been viewed over the centuries as a record or a systematic narrative of past events, dealing with the life of human beings. However in the latter half of the twentieth century the perception of History altered dramatically. Historians now talk of the historicism of History. Louis Montrose defines historicism as ‘a reciprocal concern with the historicity of texts and the textuality of History.’

This view of History is grounded in the concept that History itself is not a set of fixed objective facts but, like Literature with which it interacts, a text which needs to be interpreted. Historical texts too fall within the realm of discourses, and although they may appear to present or to reflect an external reality, they in fact consist of what are called ‘representations’, that is, narratives that are ‘ideological products’ or ‘cultural constructs’; a narrative determined by the view of the dominant class or race or gender to which the ‘author’ invariably belongs because of his accessibility to ‘scholarship’ and ‘modes of production’.

The ideological foundation of History was first brought into focus by Marx and Engels. One may define the Marxian position as one that questions the concept of History as a record of facts. This regards human consciousness as a product shaped and defined by ideology, that is, the beliefs, values, and ways of thinking and feeling through which human beings perceive, and by recourse to which they explain, what they take to be reality. An ideology is, in complex ways, the product of the position and interests of a particular class. In any historical era, the dominant ideology embodies and serves to legitimise and perpetuate the interest of the dominant economic and social class.

But Marx further perceived the domination of class as not constituting a continuity, but as a constant struggle. The dominant and subordinate classes cannot be located within one community or another, rather they are in fact determined by the changes in the fundamental modes of production, which in turn effects changes in the class structures. Seen in this context History then becomes not only a partial narrative but also a fractured one, in which there is a constant struggle for control of the logos. In the postcolonial era ‘race’ as a determinant of narrative has been widely recognised. The ‘mainstream’ voices consistently smother marginal voices. History’s absent voices are pointers to the power play of races. An ethnographic study of history exposes the rewriting and often the recreation of history. A postcolonial redefining of certain events could be stated as examples. If one asks why the Indian historians refer to an event as ‘The First War of Independence’ while the British refer to it as the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’, one may get an inkling as to how History is manipulated by language and how language itself is subordinated to ideology.

Today a teacher of History cannot but be aware of the absurdity of teaching children that Columbus ‘discovered’ America, and that Captain Cook ‘discovered’ Australia. The very word discovered strips the native of any power over the land she and her ancestors have been living in for generations, strips them of their humanity and in that process makes them invisible. Their rich history, which survived till the conquest (and later in rare cases), in the forms of legends, myths, rituals and songs, were destroyed along with their non-intrusive lifestyles, in the mad thrust of forcible assimilation. The belief that the only ‘civilized’ way of life was the Western way of life has resulted in genocide. Similarly, the destruction of the earth itself is caused by the acceptance of an anthropocentric way of existence.

Likewise, one cannot shut one’s eyes to the total absence of women from History, except in the role of a consort, a mistress or a queen. It cannot but be attributed to the ingenious and insidious working of patriarchy. The subordination of women through the ages, the various ways of exploiting the female, both economically and socially, is not the subject of History alone. But the intentionality of excluding women can be highlighted with an example. When a memorial stone was carved into the quay at Plymouth to commemorate the Founding Fathers who made the historic Mayflower voyage of 1620, there was no mention of the seventeen women who chose to undertake that perilous journey.

The possibility of the plurality of historical narratives, exploring and exposing the undermining ideological aspects is the most fascinating aspect of studying History. But I would consider even more valuable the message inbuilt in the very exercise. It warns us about one of the pitfalls of the absolutist position. It forces one to consider opposing positions and sensitises one to give adequate space to conflicting ideologies.

When a person is given the task of teaching History to young, impressionable minds, is there any way by which one can convey that narratives need not be absolute, that holding divergent opinions about an issue without conflict is desirable in civilized societies, and that violence often results from defending ideological positions? Is there a way of communicating this complexity without immediately setting up polarities in the mind of the student? More importantly, can she be taught that an opposing viewpoint deserves equal consideration, or that viewpoints alter, even within oneself? That they are just that—viewpoints, and that one should hold them lightly.

Even if one holds the position that all narratives are determined by ideology, can one also explore the relative legitimacy of different ideological positions? The intention here is not to replace one version of History with another, but to make informed choices. These questions become all the more crucial given the orchestrated and concerted effort to subvert certain historical narratives. The recent attack and attempt to discredit the so-called ‘Left Wing’ intellectuals is actually a warning of things to come. When a nation’s identity is faced with a crisis, when there is large-scale disillusionment with the current state of affairs, the tendency to fall back on a real or an imagined ‘golden age’ becomes a very real possibility.

Let us go back to the original question: Why learn History? I would say that History is valuable for these very reasons. The skills it demands and teaches are radically different from the ones typically demanded by Science or Mathematics. Its prime duty, as I perceive it, is not to make a student familiar with the happenings in the world, or to highlight the patterns of human development, but to bring about a change in her very way of thinking.

We study History, then, to enter into a dialogue that brings out the deep-seated prejudices that one invariably carries, being part of a political environment. We become aware of the insidious workings of ideology and confront our own prejudices. This creates space in the mind to hold diverse viewpoints without conflict. Rightly taught, History enlarges the mind.