Saturday, February 26, 2011

Sucker for Critical Inquiry

I read an interview of Gurcharan Das, about his latest book "The Difficulty of Being Good". Here he casually mentions that in order to research The Mahabharat he went to University of Chicago & sat among grad students to learn along with them. What's surprising is that a person can learn such a text with little cultural relevance to western philosophy, in a western university. I am pretty sure I have never come across any formal university course teaching The Mahabharat in India, where it was scripted.

When asked why he chose to learn at the University of Chicago rather than in India, he said he didn't want to escape into Indian past & wanted to do a critical inquiry. I am not surprised by the answer, since this statement immediately took me back 10-12 years when I was in school & had started developing a decent amount of curiosity about history. It still remains my favorite subject to date. History was among the thinnest text books we had ever used. Second only to the Civics text books. Most of the assessment was done on the basis of how much we remembered from the text books (the dates, the figures, the people & their references, wars & other such details). I still don't remember learning history as a way to understand a way of living at that time, or even its contribution to how we live now. I would have loved to understand the importance of the freedom struggle of India in the context of why 'freedom' was a goal & what were the alternatives? Instead the focus was on atrocities of the British & how several movements fought against them with detailed facts & figures. Well, great lessons in anarchy, but what about infrastructure, governing & stability? Our civic & legal structures still mimic the british system which was instituted by them when they ruled. What has changed? Why should it change?  Why was it considered bad? - these things were never discussed (emphasized).

When some non-Indian authors write about Indian historical figures, they run a risk of getting themselves & their books banned in the country - which becomes a major disincentive to promote critical study of history within India. Churchill reminded us that "History is written by the victors", demands that future readers of that history use a lens of doubt to study those events & their interpretations. A political cult of a common version of history destroys the sanctity of facts & doesn't allow anyone to ask questions which might challenge that version of the truth. Instead it breeds complacency among the students to ignore history & treat it as a topic which gives them some extra credits in their final exams. It also breeds a sense of belief that it has nothing to do with their lives. 

Well to be precise, if there is no history, there can't be any future ahead. No matter what the history text books, political opinion or even expert opinions believe - what has happened in the past, has happened for a reason & that reason is what must be emphasized. This precise lack of respect of what caused the events to take place makes people insolent towards the outcomes. No wonder people still litter at historical places in India. Nobody cares why that historical monument exists, but well its a great spot for a picnic, isn't it?

Is this a job for education, politics or parents? Who decides what we must learn from history? I don't know what the right answer is, but its worth figuring out. Who can control our understanding of our culture & make people realize why it is not a good idea to write "I love you" on the walls of Ajantha Caves

A recent article from The Economist casually mentions a very important point at its conclusion. 

"21st Century skills may help our pupils become better workers; learning history makes them better citizens."

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