Guided by Home Education Magazine editor Barb Lundgren, I expanded my post on “Studying History” into an article. It appeared in Home Education Magazine as “Everyday History” in the March-April 2013 issue. Please subscribe to the magazine or ask your library to order it. Here it is along with the photos that appeared in the magazine.
“Everyday History,” Home Education Magazine, March-April 2013, pp 22-25.
“Studying history is …. pretty much useless, isn’t it?” my daughter asked, as if it was fairly obvious. “I mean why read about Columbus discovering America, when it isn’t even true?”
Mission: Rescue the field of history. Why?
Meanwhile, don’t answer. A weak response merely invites rebuttal. Then what? Stay calm. Say nothing. No one need get hurt.
Ah, now I remember what to do. Listen.
Do something. Explain why we need to study history. Justice – that’s right, we can start with justice. Rosa Parks. Freedom struggle. Forest Rights. Let’s just take care not to get too complicated.
The next morning as my daughter ate breakfast, I combed her hair. I had my question ready and eased it ever so casually into the flow of braiding and talking.
“Have you ever come across something that is not fair?”
“Yes,” she said, wailing. She tends to take on the mood of whatever she is talking about. “Like right now, I am finished with my oatmeal but you are only finished with one braid and I don’t have anything to eat during the other braid.”
As I took that in, she asked, “why did you ask me that?”
“Oh,” I chirped cheerily, “I just wanted to hear what you thought.”
“That is nice” she said, genuinely appreciating it. Though many of us have come to hear “that’s nice” as an idle dismissal, when she uses the phrase, she means it.
On that happy note, we carried on an easy banter as I finished up the other braid. No further inquiry.
Throughout the day I kept my troubles regarding the beleaguered field of history to myself. I think a couple of times she may have continued thinking aloud about how she did not like history. It was almost as if she liked the sound of it: “I don’t like history.” I thought, but did not say, things like, “you like history, you are only saying that because you have gotten some idea that history is boring …. probably picked this up from some character in one of your booksi.”
Later that night she asked me, “what does Machiavellian mean?” She was reading The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, in which Anna had used the word and said to another character, “When you are older, Batty, I will explain…”
I couldn’t resist. I said, “well I can tell you but it might involve a little bit of … history.” We both giggled.
In small bits, I explained, proceeding further only as the questions directed.
Machiavelli, I said, lived 500 years ago. He wrote a book about power, how to hold on to power.
So does Machiavellian mean powerful?
Well, you can be powerful in different ways – by doing good work or by force. He became famous for writing about how to hold on to power even if you had to lie or cheat or trick people. Or even use force to hold on to your power.
As opposed to what? She did not ask this question, but I think she had an idea. She had seen the inside of a voting booth. She was aware that candidates for public office tried to convince people through public discussion and debate that they would be effective leaders. She was also aware of other approaches to leadership, thanks to some books and conversations that we had had about Rosa Parks and Mohandas Gandhi. We did not talk about these figures at the time. She went back to her novel.
I bring up what we did not say because it was part of the background in which she understood the current exchange, and also part of future conversations that would no doubt come up, probably at the most unexpected moments. Why would I want to pre-empt those moments by drawing these comparisons and contrasts right away? Besides, she asked the question in the context of her novel, and was continuing reading it.
It was not the first time history had sprinted into our conversations, sparked very much by preoccupations of the present.
Some years ago we had been cleaning our pichkari in preparation for the Holi Festival.
Branded in the plastic cap of the pichkari were the words “Made in Mumbai.”The pichkari, or water-shooter, is used for spraying friend and stranger alike on the day of Holi, a festival of spring and color. One who dares to step out in fine clothes on the day of Holi, will only attract more enthusiastic sprays of colored powder and water. As with many festivals in South Asia, multiple religious traditions have conglomerated over the centuries, and the day is also celebrated with dance, stories, bonfire and other rituals throughout the night.
“Why does this say ‘Mumbai?’” my daughter asked.
Caught! Had I not been using the recently revived “original name” of our city? I explained that Bombay was what the British called the city, based on their own attempt to say and spell the name in English. However it had in earlier times been called Mumba or Mumbai; a few years ago the state government had officially revised the name to Mumbai. Due to indifference or defiance, not everyone had yet converted.
Mumbai … Bombay … English … British … India … empire … our conversation went all over the world and back.
Why did the British come to India?
They wanted to buy things, I replied.
What did they want to buy?
And so the conversation went its own way. At the time I did not connect their commercial interests with their eventual colonization. Over the months and years ahead, when learning about Gandhi, handspun cloth, home-processed salt, and their role in India’s independence movement, some of the economic, political and cultural dimensions of India’s historic struggle got gradually fleshed out. Along the way we also met handloom weavers and spinners, and even had a chance to try spinning thread on the charkha, or spinning wheel whose image appeared on the early design of India’s national flag.
These were just a few of the questions that came up during our conversation, viewed over a span of three years. Since the British also ruled over that land that Columbus thought was India, and massacred the people whom they called Indians, the power of naming also connected at various points to other questions of society and survival.
Language, culture, power, land, water, salt, spice, east, west … we are still talking about it.
Why do people have to get spices from other countries? We haven’t yet connected this history of British colonization to contemporary concerns with local food, but I can see the seeds of this conversation. It will come up sometime, spurred by some other topic in a way I probably would not anticipate.
Could one study this history over the course of a few weeks, as might happen if one started out with that objective? One could come up with a program that included field trips to visit weavers, an exercise in spinning thread, making salt, or counting food miles. One could investigate and discuss and report on the connections between these issues.
It would probably be more interesting than the history classes I had in school. But I can say from our experience that without the slightest contrivance we have explored, thought through and been fascinated by some serious questions of history. The only planning on my part has been to have the time to hear each question it arose, and the receptivity to allow the broader context of the question emerge in its own time.
Last summer in Maryland, we saw a car with a Delaware license plate. Across the top it said “THE FIRST STATE.”
“Why does that say Delaware – the first state?” my daughter asked me.
By now it was a running joke: “Just to let you know, this might involve a little bit of history.” As it turned out, it involved politics and ontology as well, as she called upon me to explain what makes a state a state and what makes one first.
Were they already called states? she asked. Who named it Delaware? Was it like New York – named by the British, before they decided not to be British?
When? Already? Before …?
Questions about names and dates now needed answers. Rolled into the questions of when a place becomes a place, and whose place it is to decide, they brought out the links between the small and large questions of history, connecting the facts on the surface to the layers of human struggle and aspiration murmuring below.
Once we looked up the dates, how would these help us to evaluate the justice of this name for this place, hammered (by prisoners) into thousands of metal (or, as we learned in the case of Delaware, possibly porcelain) plates to be displayed on automobiles wherever they went? (Forgive my parenthetical digressions.)
We didn’t yet know. Meanwhile, our questions begot more questions. Were they first called states and then they got united? Or later when they decided to call it the United States, did they realize that the first one was Delaware? What did it do first to become the first state? I found myself asking questions too. Is Delaware also a Native American name? Did the Native Americans want to name the state?
How would we know? Whose word could we count on to know the wishes of the people of Delaware nation, before they became part of Delaware state? And what of the Susquehanna and other peoples also living in the area? Who was there first? Did being first confer any rights? Is there really any such thing as first?
This question keeps coming up.
One day we saw Bhakta Prahlad (Telugu, 1967). While observing the crowning of Prahlad, son of Hiranyakashyapu, the king before him, our daughter asked, “how did the first king become king?”
Yet again, we were face to face with one of the central questions of history. Not only how the first king became king, but indeed how any king remains king. (Maybe a question for Machiavelli!)
Such questions concerning people, places, rulers, states, names and things arise so often and inspire such intriguing searches that I cannot help but feel that history is everywhere.
* * *
Now you may ask, can you really pursue history through the questions that come up while walking around and doing other things? What about the people to whom you ask the questions … would the meandering route get you anywhere if those people hadn’t ever learned about the European renaissance, colonialism, post-colonialism, and how the American constitution was ratified? At some point don’t you also have to do the heavy reading for yourself?
And till that fine day comes when your curiosity drives you to read those works, what can you do to prepare? Sure, maybe you spend years randomly asking questions and getting quick fill-ins from Wikipedia and then suddenly start reading Romila Thapar or Amartya Sen or Howard Zinn or Victoria Brown. I can well imagine doing that. I could also imagine missing the boat entirely. Do we leave it up to chance?
Such questions come up from time to time, especially for those whose children are learning outside of school, and possibly without any standardized curriculum. Is there a plan to the learning, or is it driven by whim and fancy? Granted, whim and fancy can take you a long way, usually via the scenic route. But what about structured learning?
I think that structure materializes in various ways, and if we observe we might find, for example, that a child’s mind leaps into active mode while taking a bath or getting ready for bed. Some kids think better when in motion, or when they are interrupting you (as opposed to when you ask them a question and wait for them to answer). Some kids cry when they don’t understand something, but that crying is part of their grappling with the problem. Recognizing and respecting the structure that goes into each child’s learning process will help to keep the channels clear and unobstructed.
Apart from the patterns that emerge, are there practices that we can encourage, that will help to build our capacity to learn various things?
This brings me to another answer on structure. Consider a subject like history. History is not something that others create and we consume. History must be questioned at every turn – who said? how do you know? what if…? But how do we learn how to question history?
College History textbook authors Victoria Bissell Brown and Timothy J. Shannon note that professors’ efforts to teach students to critically examine sources of historical information are often thwarted by the pressure of time and the students’ tendency to “focus on recalling the content of the varied materials they read rather than analyzing them as historical evidenceii.”
Students who are not expected to recall content will be more likely to focus on the questions that come naturally to historians, the questions Brown and Shannon’s textbook aims to teach students to ask, such as who said this, when, how does s/he know, how reliable is s/he, how close is s/he to the event in question.
In fact children do ask such questions about every day happenings. We can draw upon this inquisitive nature and apply it to the study of the past as well. At the very least we can avoid suppressing these questions when they arise. Questioning authority, vital for investigating the past, starts with questions like “why do we have to do this?” that can spark intriguing discussions, not only on the dynamics of authority, but also on society and nature. “Why do we have to keep the door closed?” was one of the earliest, albeit nonverbal, questions I had to face from my one-year old who expected free access to the outdoors. I thought about earlier times and rural places where people spent more time outside, and how our concepts of children’s safety have changed. Thinking about the question historically helped me to recognize that her expectation was valid and motivated me to meet it more often. My information on how our ancestors lived, that helped me address my daughter’s problem in the present, came from my study of history, through reading and visiting museums.
* * *
What I am realizing from observing the excitement and wonder my daughter exhibits when seeking answers from the past to make sense of the present, in contrast to her bland comment on the uselessness of history, is that when she is piqued by the questions that historians investigate, she is learning to work like a historian, to think like a historian. And that is how one should learn history. Before my child reads the history that is written by others, I would like her to try to come up with some of her own questions and to find something out about history.
We have, for example, interviewed people in the neighbourhood. So far we have found out more about the mechanics of setting up and conducting an interview than about any particular historical or social question, but this is important too. When we read interviews of others, it gives us some insight into what it takes to set the stage, and how various factors affect the outcome.
We have also looked around the house and neighbourhood and made a kind of game of asking, “what happened here in the last few hours or days and what is our evidence for saying so?” “How reliable is this evidence?” “What might possibly make us doubt this evidence?” “What alternate explanations are there?”
Once when we did this we came across a round pile of leaves, a few inches high. My daughter said, “this pile of leaves has been here for weeks. I have seen it here many times before.” Seeing the different kinds of leaves, she added, “the leaves have come from near and far trees, because see this kind of leaf did not come from any of these trees.” So we talked about how they might have arrived at this point – by the wind, or did someone sweep them? How long would such a neatly swept pile stay that way? How often do leaves fall? Now did we still think that the same pile of leaves had been there for weeks?
“Why would anyone want to know the history of a pile of leaves?”
“As it happens,” I warmed to my story, “several years ago, a question was answered by asking such questions about a pile of junk in a particular village in the Narmada Valley.” It turned out the location of that debris pile was evidence of the level to which the Narmada river had risen during the floods of 1970. With that piece of data, the people living in that village challenged the government survey records of their village. Accurate land records were crucial in the people’s struggle over land rights and rehabilitation.
This practice of weighing evidence and alternative explanations will equip us to ask similar questions while reading history, so that we can evaluate sources and compare perspectives. At a more elementary level, a game like Chinese whispers, illustrating how a message gets distorted as it passes through various transmitters (people) can also sharpen one’s critical faculties when reading others’ accounts of what happened.
i Or was it in one of my books? I had recently been reading James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me.
“[P]rofessional historical organizations for at least a century have repeatedly exhorted teachers not to teach history as fact memorization. ‘Stir up the minds of the pupils,’ cried the American Historical Association in 1893; ‘avoid stressing dates, names, and specific events, ‘historians urged in 1934. . . . Nevertheless, teachers continue to present factoids for students to memorize.”
I don’t think my daughter read the book, but I am just saying, I need not turn to a juvenile novel to track down the sentiment that history class is boring. Historians themselves have been complaining about it for years.
ii Victoria Bissell Brown and Timothy J. Shannon, Going to the Source: The Bedford Reader in American History. Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 2004.