Studying History

“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?”

Alarmed.  All senses alert.
Mission: Rescue the field of history.   Why?  
 
Think.  Think.  
 
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 get to 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 జడ (braid) and I don’t have anything to eat during the other జడ.”  
 
Okay.
 
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.  Trust me, she is not one to say “that’s nice” for no reason. 
 
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 books[1].”
 
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, saying only “I will explain later,” when Batty, another character in the novel, asked her what it meant.
 
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. 
 
It reminded me of an incident some years ago when cleaning our pichkari in preparation for Holi.  Branded in the plastic were the words “Made in Mumbai.”   Mumbai … Bombay … English … British … the conversation went all over the world and back.  Language, culture, power, land, water, salt, spice, east, west … we are still talking about it.  
 
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.  
 
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? 
 
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?   Is Delaware also a Native American name?  Did the Native Americans want to name the state?
 
One day we saw Bhakta Prahlad (1967).  While observing the crowning of Prahlad, she asked, “how did the first king become king?”
 
Oh, yeah …
 
*  *  *  *  *
 
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, 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 goes 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?  
 
In fact children do ask these 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. 
 
I believe that one should learn history by learning to work like a historian, to think like a historian.   Before my child reads the history that is written by others, I would like her to try coming up with some of her own questions and finding 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.  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?”  
 
This practice 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. 
 
[1] Or was it in one of my books?  I had recently been reading James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me.  Loewen writes,
“[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 she 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.