In this article I will focus on teaching history in a way that is inspired by the Teachings of Krishnamurti. Rather than follow what Krishnamurti has said about how he envisaged teaching history, I will describe what I have come to after a number of years of teaching the subject. What I describe has been developed around a course that prepares for the Cambridge International AS and A-level exam. The emphasis of this article is on covering the content to be studied rather than on practising the essay-writing skills needed for the exam. There is a further emphasis on the cognitive aspects of studying history. I hope that this article shows that, though exams pose real constraints on the teacher, it is possible to bring a different kind of learning into the course along the lines suggested by Krishnamurti.
I will start with briefly discussing what can be called the non-instrumental dimension, which has its origins in a glimmer of understanding in the teacher, but does not plan itself out through particular activities– at least not initially. Then I will go into different aspects of my own teaching practice which involve planned activities in order to open the door to, rather than causing, a different kind of insight. The latter will take up the bulk of the article, as it were, in inverse proportion to its importance, as it is only when the first is in place that the second canbear fruit.
Teaching history has, for me, been a process of ongoing learning about the subject and about teaching it. What is the world we have created and why is it the way it is? Can I understand myself through the subject: recognising myself in the thoughts and actions of others; my inner responses to events I learn about; how I relate to social structures; how historical forces have shaped me? Can Iunderstand the society we live in now?
What are the ways in which the subject can liberate us? Being connected to the subject matter in a total way, emotionally as well as intellectually; developing a critical mind; identifying silences in the story, exposing half-truths, uncovering power structures; exposing the assumptions students take to the class? History can be a 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.
The whole: a non-instrumental dimension
What happens as a result of my dialogue with Krishnamurti’s ideas on education, and how does that play itself out in the classroom? For this to be an authentic understanding, it may have to aim to be nomore than a subjective understanding.
I believe the outcome of such an engagement with K’s ideas on education is best described as a process; one which begins with attention and gives rise to more attention. It is a looking inward, a discovery of inner mechanisms and their implications, which then gives rise to a moving outward. Any actions or ideas that arise out of it are incidental, secondary manifestations of a deeper movement, like flowers appearing ona shrub.
Its wholeness is there in that the inward movement of attention puts me in touch with deeper layers of myself: it uncovers emotions and ways of seeing. In this way I feel more complete, more alive. The wholeness of this movement not only integrates thoughts and feelings, it also connects me with the rest of the world, other people, nature and things. Thus, in a very real sense, it resolves the old dilemma between education for the full development of the individual and educationin the service of society.
Its effect on my teaching practice is direct:the movement inward is the movement out towards the students. It is not instrumental action, in which there is a separation in the mind between cause and effect. Quite the contrary, any urge to control the process, any insistence on a particular outcome breaks the flow of inquiry that is at the base of such action. This process is very much a momentary event, which has to berediscovered over and over again.
I believe that this process should be the focus of intention in the way we teach. That is, as intentional beings we should turn to this in our approach to both the large and the small questions we face day to day. As it is a whole movement, the fruit it bears, the parts, may then in themselves be instrumental. However, as we will see, a focus on the parts, the instrumental thinking which we bring into the classroom, will also bring to light the need for a whole approach to theindividual issues addressed by the parts.
Though there are certainly things one does as a teacher that one does not reveal to the class, for instance, not demanding full participation from a student one knows is going through a domestic crisis, I believe that at the level of methodology, complete transparency and careful explanation of the teacher’s aims and motives is in order; it aids learning and guards against conditioning thestudents in ways that they are not aware of.
The question is always one of what the students do that brings about their learning. Do they, in listening to the teacher, get a feel for the fact that the story is about real people, their hopes and fears, and begin to see that historical understanding involves empathy, however difficult, indeed treacherous, that may arise when dealing with a different cultural context?
Do they, in doing work in small groups, learn to work together, to grapple with difficult concepts, to find the important question, to do research and to come up with possible solutions? Do they, in doing individual work, begin to go inward, observe their own thinking, bring about order in itand begin to make their thinking explicit?
There is a lot of good material available about how to encourage a reflective attitude to learning and metacognition, about how to bring about active knowledge construction, either individually or with peers. The concept of the classroom as a community of learners is a useful one, when one wishes to make the classroom activities more authentic and aimed at the whole person rather than just the intellect. The inclusion of art, music and other expressions of the culture or time studied can help enrich the learning experience, as well as raise the question of how the different modes of human activity are connected, and whether there exists something like a Zeitgeist.
Ways of Knowing
The beginning of a session is a window through which one can bring a different kind of knowing into the classroom. After some moments of silence, when the students’ minds are perhaps a bit less occupied, one can raise issues of relevance to life as a whole and slowly work one’s way to the topic of the lesson. Here the quality of the discussion will depend on the depth of one’s understanding and the degree of passion one brings to it. Are these really burning questions for one? This is how one mightstart a class:
“Before we ask the mind to narrow itself down, to look in a certain way, focus on a particular band-width of the totality of life, can we be aware of everything now: our bodies, the feelings that may linger in us or that suddenly arise, the way our thoughts wander from point to point? In this our ways of knowing and of communicating are undefined. Attention is there, but there is no particular direction in it. If we see things it is because they unfold themselves inside of us or because they reveal themselves toour senses.
“Can you see how studying something to acquire knowledge brings with it a certain tension in the body; how it takes energy to keep the focus on a particular thing; how the mind goes from seeing something to structuring it; how your attention becomesnarrower as you begin to hold things in you memory and how you cease to be aware of alot of the things that do not immediatelypertain to the thing you study?”
Knowing can be seen as a process of selection and construction, which means that it is both limited and to some degree arbitrary or contested. The ways of knowing for Physics are different from the ways of knowing for History. For instance, in Physics we may get to know through experiments that have to be replicable and from which we may then construct laws of physics. History aims to know about unique events which are explained, at least in part, by referring to people’s inner states, their intentions, motives and beliefs. All this can be gone into with secondary school students, and I think should¹. Simple questions, such as “where does history reside–in the past, in books or in our heads?” or “does a tree have history?” can make most epistemological questions accessible for students.
One can easily see how a discussion about ways of knowing in the different disciplines and some of the pitfalls involved in them can lead into an exploration about the limitations of thought in general. Here one needs an inkling of the importance of asking the question, as a mechanical approach will easily become dry or dogmatic. One place to start could be the question of what it means to know the self, how it can know itself, through which cognitive prism this would take place–and similar questions can be asked about ‘knowing’ other people, nature, the meaning of life and death.
Constructing Historical Knowledge
A course where the stories of the past are read as given, as unproblematic accounts, where the teacher tells the facts and gives the explanations, is not a History class. It is a course in listening, reading, memorisation, following instructions and finally regurgitation–excuse the bovine expression. Whatever role in society such a course may actually prepare for, it is not that of a historian.
Historical inquiry tends to start with the formulation of a question, which is perhaps one of the most important things to learn at school. But how many teachers set aside significant classroom time for students to develop this skill? Why not expose the students to a piece of writing and let them spend 15 minutes in groups, to discuss and find the most important question the piece raises? It will then be interesting to ask if the examination syllabus includes their question. What can we learn from what is included in or omitted from the examination syllabus? Can we begin to understand the agenda of the examination board and the institutions itis accountable to?
Another way of bringing in more authentically historical activities is to introduce source analysis. For example, one can give the students a number of historical sources, both primary and secondary, and ask them to construct a narrative out of them. The students can then compare their different interpretations and see how and why they differ. Just as any historical sources ought to be analysed in terms of who the author is, the audience, date, accuracy and completeness of the information and so on, textbooks and exam syllabi too need to be treated as problematic. They need to be assessed for reliability and questions about possible bias of the author, publisher or examboard need to be asked.
Historical controversies can be introduced, if possible with abstracts from the original historical works in question. As a rule, I try to present the class with the most advanced interpretations and explanations I can find. The implications of presenting a simplified explanation of events can be serious, as simplification is the stuff of ideologies and prejudices. In my experience, any historical explanation can be made accessible to teenagers. One may have to refer to analogous situations in their own daily life, to, as it were, bring the understanding home. A similar thing can be done using some of the counterfactual, ‘what if’, histories thathave been written by professional historians.
The question of historical causation is one that deserves attention. We all have our own internalised theories of causation that we apply in daily life, usually implicitly. Asking the students to make them explicitand comparing them with more formal models of historical causation can be veryinstructive. One can also search causalexplanations put forward by historians forimplicit assumptions; for instance, it is neverreally questioned that people act out of selfinterest. Then alternative causal explanationscan be suggested, such as the role played bythe memory of past events in the creation ofa new conflict.
Why is it that our collective memory is so overwhelmingly concerned with suffering and strife? Is it that moments of joy and peace are simply not the stuff of memory? Is it that conflict, cruelty and exploitation are manifestations of inner disorder and that it is natural for the mind to attempt to resolve disorder? Young people need to engage with this question, lest the story become a burden.
Students may be asked to formulate solutions to real problems: a current problem, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict; a past problem, such as how WW II could have been avoided; a perennial problem, such as whether war is inevitable and what it would take for humanity to live in peace. Though most historians do not get paid for finding solutions, it is a genuine task where the student and the teacher, and anyone else for that matter, are essentially on a level playing field. What is more, it may prevent students from feeling powerless under a barrage of problems and encourage engagement. Come to think of it, one of them might actually find the answer!
Examinations : fragments, boundaries and methodologies
History is full of stories of people who, while knowing more and more in their specialised field, become blinkered to the wider picture and who, as a result, become highly destructive. In addition to the dangers of losing sight of the wholeness of life within which the particular ways of knowing are just fragments, we need to become aware of the problematic and value-laden nature of subject boundaries. For example, what does it mean that economics is a different discipline from environmental studies? Also, problems concerning the methodologies of the disciplines deserve attention, e.g. the implications of governments looking at education through the lens of institutions and statistics.
It is important for the students to understand that the knowledge contained in the different examination syllabi is what can be called institutional knowledge, i.e. knowledge that has become legitimate through the discipline according to the methodology of which it has come into being. In this sense education is the process of socialisation or enculturation into institutional life: the knowledge contained in the disciplines, the criteria for legitimate knowledge and the assessment criteria based on them, and what constitutes a legitimate question in the discipline.
Not only is examinable knowledge institutional in nature; the school itself, with its individual work in the context of a classroom, grades, qualifications and so on, is also an institution. Hopefully, our schools are more than just institutions, but insofar as we prepare students for exams, we take on an institutional role. There is the whole question of the ‘hidden curriculum’, which includes questions of what it is they “learn” when they spend years at school sitting behind desks, following instructions, obeying a time-table and so on.
Every generation, every civilisation, has had ways to socialise the young, and thus the study of history can be a mirror we recognise ourselves in. We need to ask whether equal opportunities (for some) and the process of selection through competition functions to legitimise economic and social inequalities as well as study the effect of fear and competition on the individual. Students can be made aware of the nature of examination course material and its mode of assessment verbally, through explanation, and practically through peer and self-assessment. A clear understanding of this can take away some of the mystique and fear that surround examinations as well as increase the students’ understanding of the society they live in.
From the Parts to the Whole
Humanity is facing real problems– environmental, political, social, economic, moral and spiritual–and, if history is a mirror in which we can get to see ourselves and the society we live in more clearly, the study of history should reveal something about these problems, our role in them and perhaps in what direction we should be looking for a solution. By studying the problems faced by humanity from the perspective of the whole of the world, the whole of the story of humanity and the whole of the person studying and being studied, we return to the present, in which there is only ourselves and our actions. Perhaps education can become relevant again, in that it may be able to find, to discover a response to these problemshumanity is faced with.
In acquiring knowledge about past societies and the role of groups and individuals in them, we have the opportunity to look into a mirror of our own times. Sometimes we get to see ourselves through likeness and sometimes by contrast. The stories of the past can be entertaining, exotic or bizarre, but living now is a serious thing and understanding the world we live in and our own role in it is not straightforward. If we are passionate about the world we live in, will we not look hard into the mirror of the past? And as we see more clearly the web of structures, institutions, ideas and motives that we are caught in, that we help sustain, we need to ask in class whether it is possible tobe free of them.
Studying the mirror and asking the question of freedom comes not in the abstract. They come in the context of factual inquiry and critical thinking. They are grounded in a resonance with the suffering, joys and anxieties of real people, either in the past or, more importantly, now. We are looking at the world humanity has created through the prism of a history class. At the same time we are trying to be aware of the particular nature of the prism we are looking through and we ask whether it is possible to look without any sort of prism at all.
¹ My own teaching experience does not include students younger than 12 or 13, but my guess is that even with very young children one can address issues of this sort in some way that is both intelligible to them and that still does justice to the issue.
Yes I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he see the dawn before the rest of the world.