History’s Limited Place for Textbooks
GS1 Art and Culture
- Contrary to popular belief, our comprehension of history is not entirely derived from textbooks.
Understanding of history :
From lived experiences
- As with the majority of social sciences, our knowledge of history derives from lived experience.
- This includes what we read in fiction or non-fiction or from the Internet; what we watch on television or in the movies; what we are told by our friends and family either in person or via social media; what we see of history in our daily experience in the form of monuments or ruins; and the material objects we interact with such as heirloom jewellery or clothes or food.
- All of this contributes to the formation of our working historical knowledge.
- This is not intended to belittle the significance of the history textbook in education.
Role of textbook
- The textbook’s influence on our historical comprehension is significant but limited. Classrooms provide us with a lens through which to observe world events.
Limitation of textbooks over lived experiences:
Consider the following example
- A high school student of history will know that the Delhi Sultanate was succeeded by the Mughals and then the British in Delhi.If someone were to switch the order of events and claim that the British arrived before the Mughals, the student would know better than to believe them.
- The purpose of the textbook is therefore to provide a framework of sequential factual information.
- The majority of school-aged children would be unable to identify the British Governor Generals of India, but they would all recognize that the Governor General was the highest authority in the British Raj.
- Therefore, we do not ‘learn’ history in school as much as we learn a sequence of past events.
- The number of complaints that history is never taught in an engaging manner in school demonstrates the level of historical interest generated by the school curriculum among students.
Great Man Theory:
- Thomas Carlyle, an essayist of the 19th century, proposed a theory for the study of history titled the Great Man Theory.
What does the theory say?
- He wrote that great men or influential and charismatic individuals alter the course of history through intellect or force, and that the narrative of history must be studied through their actions.
- History has always been viewed through the lens of individual “doers,” the majority of whom have been nobility.
- The Great Man Theory is responsible for the majority of problems with the way history is taught and communicated.
- Firstly, the significance of dynasties and kings is frequently exaggerated.
- Most importantly, the use of battles as milestones on a chronological roadmap diminishes the significance of other methods of examining history.
- The military is accorded far too much significance in history;
- The pain and brutality that would have accompanied battles and invasions are frequently couched in terms such as ‘bravery’ and ‘glory’ to divert readers’ attention from the destruction and loss of life that these conflicts often brought about needlessly.
What can be done?
- A more sensitive view of the past requires that battles be regarded negatively in the context of historical narratives and that more information be conveyed regarding the loss from conflict.
- In the 20th century, historians with a left-leaning perspective developed an alternative approach to history known as people’s history.
- This aimed to emphasize the common people’s perspective and larger social and economic forces rather than leaders.
History from below/subalterns
- This approach to analyzing historical narratives was also known as “history from below” because it told the stories of the historically outnumbered disenfranchised, oppressed, poor, and weak (often referred to as subalterns).
Choosing ‘People’s history’ over ‘bravery’, and ‘glory’
- Applying an approach similar to ‘People’s history’ to teach history in and out of the classroom will have a number of effects.
- It would dismantle the limited prisms through which we have been compelled to view history.
- If we no longer studied the wars and campaigns of kings or the arcs of dynasties and instead learned about their social and administrative policies, the conditions of the subaltern, and the daily routines of the people, we might learn a history that is less glamorous but much more accurate to its purpose.
Serving the purpose of communicating history
- The purpose of communicating history is straightforward: to demonstrate how far we have come and how far we still have to go.
- The purpose of communicating history should be to make citizens aware of the nuances and complexities of the past.
- With this understanding, people will no longer be frustrated by history.
Daily Mains Question
[Q] The role of the textbook in our historical comprehension is significant but limited. Analyse. Why should ‘People’s history’ be chosen over ‘bravery’ and ‘glory’?