Brave New World (The Star)
30 December 2010
Our secondary school history syllabus needs some serious thought and reworking as it is very imbalanced.
I DID a funny thing on Christmas Day. I went to a bookstore and bought an SPM history book. The last time I read one of these things, Ronald Reagan was president and it was considered the height of fashion to wear carrot-cut trousers and white socks with your little black shoes; an ugly time indeed.
Anyway, the reason I bought this SPM history textbook was because there has been some controversy recently about the proposal to make history a compulsory subject in the SPM exams.
The main contention about this move by the Government is the actual content of the history taught. In the spirit of independent research, I bought the book to see if there is any cause for concern.
The thing about history is that it is not written in stone. Discoveries are made which shed new light on old ideas. For example, archaeological digs in Malaysia have shown that the peninsular has been inhabited for far longer than previously thought.
In Egypt, discoveries of entire towns surrounding the great pyramids suggest that they were built by a skilled workforce as opposed to an army of slaves (or technologically advanced Atlanteans if you read some of the more far out books).
Even existing facts can be reinterpreted in order to view established historical figures and events in a new way.
Recent works on Genghis Khan dismiss the simplistic (and racist) view that he was merely a blood-thirsty conqueror. Instead his empire established progressive ideas such as a common currency, protected trade routes and centres for education and culture.
However, the interpretation and reinterpretation of history has to be done very carefully.
There is always the danger that if a person has a specific agenda in mind, then his version of historical events can be very skewed and untruthful.
For example, for many years the great African civilisations like Nubia were not given any prominence because it conflicted with the European agenda to depict Africa as a backward place, thus justifying their exploitation of the continent and its peoples.
Therefore, any historian worth his salt must be as objective as possible and back his assertions with solid evidence; assertions which can change with future discoveries.
With this in mind, I dipped into my brand new book. And I must admit that the SPM syllabus leaves much to be desired.
The most glaring oddity is found in the Fourth Form section of the book. There are 10 chapters in the Fourth Form syllabus and five of them are about Islamic civilisation.
I do not understand why there has to be so much emphasis on Islamic civilisation.
Great swathes of important history such as the ancient Greeks, the Roman Empire, the Chinese Kingdom, the Indian empires (north and south), the Renaissance and the South-East Asian kingdoms are dealt with almost perfunctorily.
What is even more troubling is that the “history” of Islamic civilisation has elements of theology in it.
This overly heavy emphasis on one aspect of human history is not healthy as it provides our young people with a very imbalanced worldview.
And it is most ironic that it is Islamic civilisation that is given so much space in the history syllabus because one of the greatest strengths of the so-called golden age of Islamic history was the hunger that Muslim thinkers then had to seek knowledge from around the world.
They were not insular and narrow in their thinking and if one were to truly honour Islamic civilisation, then it is this attitude that should be embraced, not the rather strange idea that one civilisation deserves so much more attention than all others.
Looking at the Fifth Form part of the book, there is also some cause for concern.
In studying the development of the nation state that is Malaysia, there is a need for our young people to understand that there were many players involved.
The Malayan Union, for example, was not opposed by the Malays only. The multi-racial AMCJA-PUTERA (which was given approximately three dismissive lines in the book I bought), opposed the Malayan Union too.
They organised massive rallies and a general strike which Malayans from all walks of life and ethnic communities participated in. And they were the first to actually demand independence.
So yes, I do believe that our secondary history syllabus needs some serious thought and reworking. As it is, it is very imbalanced.
If taught correctly, history can be fun and also invaluable in shaping a sense of common identity.
However, if taught wrongly it is deadly dull and if content-wise it is wrong, it can be divisive and breed dangerous ideology.
With the New Year upon us, let us not forget that to move forward we must understand the past.
Let that understanding be a fair one in order for our progress to be fair too.