Teach Us History... Differently!
By Azly Rahman
We are reading too much on Malaysian political dynasties.
Political dynasties pose intellectual dangers to the well-being of our emerging political consciousness. They create political-economic elites that continue to expand power, structure hegemony, and indoctrinate the masses. It has been a phenomena the world over. We are seeing this unfolding right before our eyes.
In coffee-stalls, “warongs” or kedai kopis, bars, country clubs, etc. the conversations revolve around which son/daughter or son-in-law or daughter-in-law will become the next Prime Minister and how this or that gang is plotting against the other. It becomes interesting ‘Sherlock Holmes-style” of conversation but does not add value to the kind of democracy we are trying to achieve.
The space for democracy will be limited if our dialogues revolve merely around politics of speculation and sinisterism. The makers of history continue to be those who own the means of controlling the production of consciousness well as those who own the money to buy votes. They build institutions of control that produce technologies and ideologies of mind control.
We need to excavate the meaning of people’s history and not the history of glorified individuals. Idolatry of any form constitutes mental subjugation that limits the creative and critical ability of a nation to construct ethical civilizations.
An inroad to the reconstruction of how to renew our historical consciousness must lie in the way we teach History/Civics/Citizenship to our children.
History is that field of study/enterprise so powerful a mental glue that can integrate or disintegrate a nation. It becomes crucial what perspective of history we use in crafting its ancillary called Citizenship Studies/Kenegaraan. We must begin to reconceptualize the way we approach teaching it.
Consider the following questions we may begin to ask ourselves concerning history:
Whose history is of most supreme?
What kind of history is most meaningful to the individual?
Who writes history?
From what point of view is history written?
When does history textbooks get revised?
How does history contribute to lethal ethnocentrism?
Under what circumstances do historians lie?
Is there such a thing as ‘historical facts’ when historical accounts themselves are biases reconstructed based on selective memory and written by those who owns the pen?
Who gets marginalized in the process of historicizing?
When will “history” become “her-story”?
What images of women, immigrants, minorities, natives are presented in history textbooks?
In a multiracial and pluralistic society, how is a national history textbook written?
Must history continue to glorify individuals, despots, autocrats, dictators, symbols of slavery and oppression, buildings, etc.?
How do we teach children to write their own histories so that they may become makers of history instead of being fed with other people’s history?
How do we make history lessons come alive?
"Questioning our History lessons"
Via a personal narrative, let me illustrate why we ought to provide new questions in history.
In my history classes in primary school, I had always daydreamed of being transported to lands far away – to Greece of the Olympian gods, Rome of Caesar, Majapahit, and the kingdom of Ashoka.
My question has oftentimes been this: why are the kings/sultans/rajahs ruthless and why did people have to worship them?
What magical powers such as the ‘daulat’ that these kings possess and why aren’t; the slaves given theirs too? What led people to believe that these rulers posses these powers – did the sultan’s propagandists write all these?
As a child -- I had these questions because I thought it would also be nice to have the power to have a bridge in my kampong, Kampong Melayu Majidee, Johor Bahru collapse by saying
“Hoooi, runtuh lah jembatan ni…aku perintah kau runtuh .. jadi.. maka jadi lah.. kun faya kun”
[ “Hoooi… collapse ye’ little bridge.. I command ye to collapse.. be .. and let it be… let it be]
I wanted such powers for myself – if (the Japanese hero) Ultra Man can have it, then why can’t I?
In teaching American and World History, in the United States, I continue to ponder how best to make my students daydream of constructing their understanding of history from the people’s point of view – from the history of real people who did the real job of constructing reality that is called a nation.
This means asking my students to explore slave narratives, voices of early immigrants, stories of those who fought tooth and nail against injustices, how kings are overthrown, and how revolutions are crafted. This means asking my students to understand the concept of the modern daulat – hegemony.
In my classes in Foundations of Western Civilization, I would have my students construct group manifestoes of new civilizations based on a synthesis of work of major thinkers of the Western World they study. Their manifestoes reflect a problem-based understanding of the issues of modern times, using ideas of the past. I wanted to have them look at history differently and become part of the ongoing conversation of what it takes to be a social thinker.
I wanted to push the limits of their imagination in order for them to produce challenging questions on issues of how democracy looks like and what it takes to build a thinking nation. I would continue to push the limits of their individual as well as group thinking in deconstructing and reconstructing history so that the lessons will bring them closer to the people and not to kings, despots, dictators, and monuments.
I was, at the same time, teaching them to analyze ideology and deconstruct hegemony. I only asked questions. I seldom give them answers. As Socrates would say, the answers are within themselves.
"Civics lessons and a healthy democracy"
Those who think that we cannot question historical facts, have not learned the philosophy of history nor been introduced to more exciting strategies of creative and critical thinking.
Teachers and university educators who preach ‘official histories’ need to be introduced to the varieties of teaching strategies of teaching History as well as the spectrum of views on what history, from the perspective of history and class consciousness, can be.
A skilled teacher/university educator will humbly entertain any question on history. The more we question ‘historical facts’ the sharper our thinking will become. The more we question the origin of things, the better we will play our role as creators of history as well as masters of our own destiny. The more we delve into the most challenging questions in history, the healthier our sense of well-beingness of own democracy will be.
A healthy democracy is one that teaches each and every child what ‘politics’ mean. In our History class, it teaches the meaning of justice and fairness and of the use and abuse of power. It teaches the process and possibilities of democracy and not of democracy as a product created by the elite few that come from dynasties. It teaches them how to become active and reflective citizens.
A good History lesson do not teach children to memorize facts that are suspect, or historical facts that are oxymoronic, or of dead people and dead places and who controls this or that territory, or which kingdom gets overthrown by this or that usurping prince. It teaches them to question those facts and to put those individuals on trial. It puts Christopher Columbus on trial for murdering thousands of Arawak Indians in the process of being canonized as the “founder” of America.
A good History lesson does not teach the idea that Parameswara, who fled his kingdom in an unsuccessful coup attempt in Palembang, and next killed Temagi in the then Singapura, and next hunted down by the Thais, and next landed under a Melaka tree -- is a hero. It teaches children to be vigilant against rulers who are murderers and plunderers and slave-owners.
The story of a glorified Parameswara as a founder is a bad history lesson – how can we still glorify a ‘historical fact’ of an usurper and a murderer as a founder of Melaka? It is like glorifying the history of Manhattan island, New York City – worth 24 dollars in real estate value and became a haven for smugglers, pirates, and bootleggers.
A good history lesson makes history that come alive by allowing children to play the role of makers of their own history. It allows children to put Parameswara on trial for murder and revolt. It teaches children to question the founding of Melaka and the intention of the author/court-propagandist Tun Sri Lanang who wrote it.
A good History class is one that teaches children to revise, debunk, and deconstruct history as a tool of mass deception. It challenges students to look at history in radically different ways to make history come alive, subjective, and ever revisionist.
A good History class teaches children the people’s history of the land – of those who died building monuments, istanas, factories, bridges, tunnels, or in wars between the greedy Sultans of the region. These are the unsung heroes of history that our children ought to be taught to honor.
A good History lesson teaches children not other people’s history but of their own – beginning with one’s personal history, next to one’s family, and one’s people – all within the framework of history that does not alienate and marginalize human beings.
The way we still teach History and Social Studies reflects why we Malaysians cannot yet evolve from the consciousness of ‘waiting for the messiahs/saviors/matrieya/al-Mahdi/ Perdana Menteri’ to the consciousness of understanding the Self as the true ruler of the Kingdom within.
Already our land is littered with names after names of individuals who wield dynastic power since modern time immemorial – names of those deserving or not. These names are inscribed on roadsigns, billboards, lorongs in kampongs, landmark buildings, corporate towers, stadiums, schools, higher education institutions, and deep in the consciousness of the people through media control of the human mind.
We become colonized by these names, signs, and symbols. The mind becomes paralyzed being colonized by these concepts, signs, and symbolism that govern the daily economic, social, and political existence of the people that are being made objects of other people’s history.
Let us teach our children that they too can become the next Prime Minister. Teach our teachers how to creatively teach Civics and History and to acquire the art and science of Revisionist Civics, Counter-factual History, and Radical and Transformational Leadership.
Our political conversations will then be more meaningful and our road to democracy will be more enjoyable.
Man makes history, said the great historian E.H. Carr. It is the “people’s history” as American historian Howard Zinn would say, that ought to be honored.