Thursday, 5 January 2012

History lessons must be objective

Brave New World (The Star)
29 December 2011

History education should tell us where we come from, how we have become the way we are and how to move forward.


FOR the past few months I have been involved with a group of organisations and individuals known as Kempen Sejarah Malaysia Sebenar. In short it is known as KemSMS.
Yes, I realise that it is a rather unfortunate abbreviation. It makes us sound like a camp where they teach you how to send text messages (with special classes on how to make funny emoticons).
However, I feel fortunate to be ask­ed to be part of this group because we are working on the very important issue of teaching history in our schools.
Well, when I say “we are working” I really mean that my colleagues have been working. I have merely been sitting in meetings, nodding at their wisdom.
The Education Ministry has formed a committee to review the history syllabus taught in secondary schools and I hope that they will do their work well and with integrity.
KemSMS has been invited by this committee to give our views on the issue and we have done so. What will happen remains to be seen and it would be premature to discuss it here.
What I do wish to discuss is what I have learnt from working with this wonderful group of people.
For one thing, the teaching of history is a far more complex proposition than I had previously thought.
Of course, the most basic complaint that one can make is that a history book has got its information wrong.
If you say that Thailand invaded Malaysia during the Second World War, then obviously you should be knocked on the back of the head with a plastic cup for being an ignoramus.
But of course things are far more complex than that. For example, I could say “The United States of America beat Germany in the Second World War”.
It is factually correct but it misses many important points, like the small matter of the involvement of the Soviet Union, Britain, Japan and Italy.
History is not merely about facts, it is also about emphasis and the subtle intonations of values. And it is here that things get cloudy.
On the issue of values for example, I have been told, rightly so, that one can’t possibly avoid value judgments in the analysis of history. However, when talking about a school syllabus, then any value judgment has to be universal in nature.
Where it is perfectly all right to say that the Pol Pot regime caused the deaths of hundreds and thousands and this is a negative thing, one must not be making statements where one says a particular ideology is better than the other.
It is a very fine line but one that must be walked when we are talking about the education of our children.
If you, as a historian have your own personal biases, then by all means write a book and let your prejudices blossom.
Academic rigour and vigour shall be your only judge. But any value judgments short of the most humanist and general should not infect our school books.
For me, education must have an objective. History education in particular should have the objective of telling us where we come from, how we have become the way we are and from this knowledge the lessons to be taken in how to move forward.
As it has been so often said, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. Yes, history education must have an objective.
What it must not have is an agenda.
And it is this distinction that KemSMS and those who care about education, must keep striving for.

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