Friday, 29 November 2013

Why study history

Sin Chew Jit Poh
23 November 2013
I enjoy history. I enjoy it much more now as an adult than I did as a child. I love buying history books and am always on the lookout for good history documentaries.
This was not always the case. In my youth, even though I studied the subject from standard four all the way to my sixth form, I can’t say with all honesty that I loved it as much as I do now. Perhaps it was the subject matter or the way which it was taught, but the kind of excitement I get nowadays when faced with an interesting programme or a new book, simply was not there.
Be that as it may, it was far from my most hated subject. That honour lies with maths. I was interested enough with history, just not in love with it. Well, if I found it quite dull, despite my basic interest in it; imagine what it was like for my school friends who hated it.
This is why making history a compulsory pass for fifth form students, I think is a bit silly. Basic history should be taught in primary school and even the early years of secondary school, but by the time a young man or woman is sixteen then they really should be free to pursue the subjects that they are interested in.
Not only does it, in a rather abstract way, give them a taste of the responsibility of decision making, but on a more practical level, students tend to do well in subjects they enjoy.
It appears that the reason why there are plans to make history compulsory is in order to instil a sense of patriotism in the youth. This kind of thinking concerns me. Firstly it is logically flawed. When has forcing something on anyone made them feel anything other than resentment? You can’t force patriotism just as you can’t force love.
Secondly, whenever patriotism is used as a reason for anything, I get suspicious. As Samuel Johnson said “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. I am very worried that the word “patriotism” is merely a cover for the real objective of this exercise which is “propaganda”.
History must never be dictated by politicians with their political agendas and I fear this is what is happening now. If we look at the fifth form syllabus of history as it stands, we see a seriously disproportionate emphasis on Islamic (read Arab) history and very little on the early, extremely diverse history of this country and the region.
With regard to recent history, the independence movement is seen from a very narrow perspective, focussing only on UMNO (and to a lesser extent MCA and MIC); when the truth is the independence movement started with the Malayan left wing. Furthermore the constant use of derogatory terms on non-Malays such as “pendatangs”, just adds to my sense of unease. History as it is taught appears to be an effort to push forward the Malay/Muslim agenda and little else.
The current history syllabus is divisive and selective and it does not give our fifth formers a clear or holistic picture of our history. And knowing our history is really about knowing ourselves. It does not need to be like this. It must not be like this, especially if it is to be made a compulsory subject.
So what kind of history do I want taught? One that delves into the great civilisations of the world, particularly Asia more deeply. One that explores the rich relationship between this land and the lands that surround it. For example the fact that Malays owe so much of our culture to India and that for centuries, we were all Hindus.
It is true that the land was almost homogenous in the 19th Century and the demographics changed with high immigration, but instead of harping on about how so many of our people have their ancestors from faraway lands, what about delving into how much those self-same ancestors contributed to the wealth of the nation. And definitely I would like to see the credit for independence spread around to all who worked and suffered for it, not just the forefathers of our current political masters. This is not only unfair, but also untrue.
Teaching history must have a purpose, and that purpose may well be nation building. What it must not have is a political agenda, and that is exactly what the contents of school history in this country and the proposal to make it a compulsory subject looks like to me.

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