What could be more important than knowing our ancestry and learning from the examples of creativity and progressiveness they set for us? The Indus Valley Civilisation of nearly 5,000 years ago invented the wheel and displayed a highly urbanised structure. There were streets, drains to catch the rain water and dispose it off. Huge granaries stored the excess agricultural produce and wells provided a clean and affordable drinking water supply.
Consequently, for a young country such as Pakistan whose habitat is in the land of the ancient Indus people, learning from history is essential for the younger generation.
Moreover, history as a social science subject goes back to Ibn Khaldun who mastered the skills for historiography and set the pattern for it as a discipline. For the modern world, history is the lifeline to inculcating a sense of identity, pride and learning in the heritage of a nation. All countries across the globe make it a mandatory subject to be taught from middle school onwards.
Nevertheless, history teaching and learning in Pakistani schools has long since become a subject for rote learning. ‘There are so many dates to learn, so many battles to remember and so on ...’ is the general perception of students learning history in the classroom.
Examination times are excruciatingly recalled for the memory skills employed to regurgitate the enormous history syllabus for a particular class. Textbook boards have consistently churned out just written material in a history textbook as if the learners were academics already and could read pages and pages of writing for analytical commentaries.
History has been examined on the premise of filling pages and pages of writing to impress the examiner with the information regurgitated for his benefit. No wonder that history whose importance in the Social Sciences has never diminished the world over has never become a subject of choice for Pakistani students at higher levels of the education tier. Nor has the academic discipline been fostered to create a host of historians to service the cause of the nation’s pride in its identity and cultural attainment.
Allama Iqbal explains the importance of history in the life of a nation by saying:
“The record of the past illuminates The conscience of a people; memory Of past achievements makes it self-aware; But if that memory fades and is forgotten, The folklore again is lost in nothingness…., If thou desires everlasting life, Break not the thread between the past and now And the far future. What is life? A wave Of consciousness of continuity, A gurgling wine that inflames the revelers.”
Allama’s verse was written before the subcontinent of India was partitioned in 1947. The new independent states of Pakistan and India had to rewrite and even divide their common history as well. The times of Asoka and Chandragupta Maurya vanished from Pakistani history textbooks (re-introduced in the National Curriculum 2006 but as yet not implemented in schools) and Indian textbooks acquired their policy position.
However, the common heritage of history is found in abundance in both the respective countries. The spectacular Taj Mahal prized as one of the Seven Wonders of the World is India’s heritage from its Mughal past and Ranjit Singh’s Gurdwara in Lahore is Pakistan’s heritage from its Punjabi Sikh past. Ownership of its historical past has been undertaken at a more professional level in India with history teaching focusing on pedagogy of “continuity of consciousness” that Allama Iqbal speaks of.
Indian school children regularly visit historical monuments such as Humayun’s tomb, Itimad-ud-Daulah’s mausoleum and all the sites available to them within Delhi and outside. In fact the government of India subsidises trips to historical monuments for middle school children. On the Pakistani side, historical monuments and the forts that are found in abundance all over Pakistan but are rarely visited by school children as part of the pedagogy of learning history.
Pedagogy for history demands an understanding of the evolution of civilisation over a period of time by the indigenous people or races that lived in that land. The invention of the wheel by the Indus Valley peoples has continued to revolutionise the living of people right up to the 21st century. The architectural achievements of Muslim and Hindu monarchs adapted to the weather conditions of the subcontinent can minimise the effects of climate change in today’s architectural studies. Original and creative engineering of the water systems in Shalimar Gardens and Lahore Fort can direct the use of water for areas where water is scarce and climates are hot and dry. Decorative styles of the monuments continue to inspire artists and artisans in the use of articulate aesthetics of colour and form.
The Grand Trunk Road and the use of ‘serais’ or rest areas are continuing as modern necessities for transportation of peoples, goods and postage. The use of wells and canal systems or the Persian wheel for irrigating agricultural land is the forerunner of the tube wells and pipelines using electrical or other power sources. This is the study of history that has to be cultivated for creating interest in the subject and promoting analytic and evaluative thinking skills.
No doubt historical content is glossed over or there are gaps created to reveal a bias in textbooks in most countries so that a national outlook is instilled in the minds of the young.
Interestingly, India and Pakistan have had to rewrite their history to steer away from the colonial bias evident in books written by British Indian historians. While India has taken serious note of providing highly qualified historians to write their history textbooks, Pakistan has lagged behind in this field.
This void has made those who lacked the discipline of the subject come into this field and make textbook history boring and linear. For example, in terms of leadership, Pakistani textbooks need to highlight the common heroes of the struggle by both Muslims and Hindus for independence from the British. Many of the textbooks forget to mention Hindu, Rajput and Maratha leaders who joined in far greater numbers in the independence war of 1857 and converged on Delhi to rally around the Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar to lead them. The leadership qualities of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Maulana Azad which led the Congress are something for children to learn from rather than dismissing them as ‘enemies’. For too long history textbooks have included topics which are irrelevant to the subject discipline as well as focusing on a linear approach.
What is relevant to history learning is evaluation of achievements of historical figures, analysing causes and consequences of wars and battles, assessing the advantages and disadvantages of changes and reforms and learning chronologically periods of historical significance in their times and ages. All these skills define critical thinking skills and lead to developing minds for future application in adapting to a changing lifestyle.
Thus, teachers, school heads and administrators must take it upon themselves to make history learning a priority as learning through history expands the mind to internalise and use that knowledge to critically apply it for innovation and creativity.
The writer is an educational consultant based in Lahore