Understanding Your Own History Through Education – Part II

This is the second installment of a blogpost on Ineke Veldhuis-Meesters study visit to Calcutta, India, which took place from 6 - 13 November 2016.  It is the seventh article in a series of reports and blogposts related to the project “Dealing with the Past in History Education”. The preceding blogpost of Ineke's visit can be found here. 

Part II. School visits and workshop

Context on Calcutta and the Education System in India

Located in the eastern part of India, Calcutta is the capital and administrative center of the state of West Bengal. The former capital of British India, Calcutta is a veritable melting pot of cultures. The diverse nature of the city is reflected in the education system. As with every state in India, there are schools in the city that are affiliated to the State Board and offer a syllabus designed for the state, by the state. The other boards of education are the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE). These three main boards of education differ from one another in terms of content, modes of examination and assessment. The city of Calcutta also has around 300 state-recognized madrassas, or Islamic religious schools. To add to this already fascinating mix, the language of instruction differs too. In some, it is Bengali, which is the predominant language spoken in West Bengal, in some it is English and in some it is Urdu or Hindi. There is also a large non-formal school system that runs in tandem with the formal private and public schools.

(Drawn from M. Malhorta, 2016 study visit folder)

  1. Visit to Akshar Inclusive School

Akshar (‘Alphabet’ in Sanskrit) is the first inclusive school in Calcutta. It was started in 1998 by the Rajpal Khullar Trust to fulfill the need to establish an institute that benefits children with borderline special needs. As a rule, the school admits five special needs students on an average per class, who are seated between the other children. While there are teachers trained in special education to give individualized care to the students who need it, each class also has teachers who assist students with special needs, helping them out with whatever they require during a regular class. The school offers the Indian Certificate for Secondary Education (ICSE) board for the mainstream classes, and the Open Basic Education (OBE) and the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) curricula for those with special needs. The academic level is the O-level (like in the British system). The government recognizes the School Leaving Certificates. There are 17.000 of these schools in India, as per the information from the principal Mrs Noni Khular. Before I witnessed classes with Grade eight and Grade seven, I was shown around the school and introduced to educators—both special educators as well as those teaching the regular classes.

What struck me immediately in Akshar was the happy atmosphere, the happy children, the encouraging inclusiveness - really Impressive.  20% of the pupils have disabilities such as Down syndrome, physical and mental handicaps, ADHD, dyslexia, autism or Asperger. Ms. Noni Khullar, the principal and Co-Founder of the Akshar School explained her philosophy. The mainstream children will learn from the lesser-abled - how they strive to achieve their goals despite limitations (See picture of the school’s magazine ‘Mentor’ with principal). They will grow up to be sensitive and compassionate children with sound humane values, who have known students with challenges and are friends with them. Students with disabilities are also challenged by the teachers to prepare them to deal with the real world outside the school environment and are taught how to deal with success and failure.

I was enthusiastic about what I saw and heard: how they practice what they talk about and how they achieve to be such a happy school community.  I admire the strong principal and her able staff - an experience I took home.

I attended history class with Grade eight, 13 year olds and Grade seven, 12 year olds.

In both classes in an instructional conversation history was taught as events and facts to know and understand; the teacher explains and asks questions and always relate the historical content to India today. So Historical Significance came in: “What is nationalism today, what about the individuality of a nation in the present context?”  - Questions to think about. It was in an agreeable and relaxed learning atmosphere.

In answer of my question on how 13 year-olds perceive the history lessons:

Most said that they like history because they can learn about the past, want to know how life was in the past, and also because their teacher is entertaining. And they could learn about the history of other countries, e.g. in Europe.

  1. Visit to Calcutta International School

Calcutta International School (CIS) is the first school in the city to offer the GCSE syllabus recognized by Indian Boards. The Cambridge International AS and A levels are offered here as well.

The CIS caters to a large cross section of students from Calcutta as well as children of expatriates. Founded in 1953 for the British expatriates, the school has 17 nationalities of students. I was shown around the school by Ms Tina Servaia, history teacher in the middle and senior school and also member of the Advisory Board of History for Peace. The School has good resources. I did not visit classes but in a separate room I had ample time to engage with students and later teachers.  At the end of the visit I had a conversation with the Principal Dr. Nath about the level of students, teachers and the education in her school and about training opportunities for her teachers.

Eight students from the AS, A2 and IB classes, , 16 to 18 year olds, who have taken up humanities and history, sat around a table for nearly half an hour with me.

They shared their experiences of studying in a school that has a different curriculum and a different teaching methodology than most other schools in the rest of the country. They recognized that the curriculum itself offers a lot of freedom in terms of analysis and interpretation of texts. The students enjoy their history classes particularly because of the freedom given to them to discuss, analyze and debate. They are curious to know what happened in world affairs in historical, economic and sociological aspects. “There are events in the past related to the political, ideological and religious conflicts we want to know and understand: History is (connected to) current affairs”. The students are keen to find out what happened, in this way: “Give us a lot of sources and five perspectives, let us research to find out what happened, discuss what could have happened, and to see how other countries “have become different”. It was a lovely conversation with these 16 to 18 year olds on a quite high analytical level. “Humanities is less structured than science, so you can think more openly”. The students were enthusiastic to share why they liked the subject. There was such a free and enthusiastic atmosphere, amongst the eager and intelligent students, who “see the subject history as analysis”. The question about ‘difficult history’ seemed irrelevant to them. “Nothing is difficult, if you analyse,” they said in their youthful enthusiasm.

  1. Visit to the Modern High School for Girls

The Modern High School for Girls was founded by Mrs B.M. Birla in 1952. Mrs. Birla came from a leading industrialist family and the school at that time set a revolutionary example in the area of women’s education.  The school offers the Indian Certificate for Secondary Education curriculum to their students.

Dr. Devi Kar, the Director (and former Principal), Ms. Damayanti Mukherjee, Principal and Ms. Amita Prasad, the Vice- Principal gave me a friendly welcome. Dr Kar spoke to me in detail about the ethos of the school. A school that combines the best from the East and the West, with a principal who stood outside the regional rivalry. The school calls itself an ‘All Faith school’. After 35 years of rule by an American missionary, Dr. Kar succeeded as the third Principal in the school’s history and the first of Indian origin. Dr. Kar and the vice-principal Ms. Amita Prasad challenged me in a talk about Sam Wineburg’s ‘historical thinking’ ideas. Dr. Kar was really engaged, and also attended the EuroClio presentation and the first part of the workshop the following day. On the first day of the conference she led a panel discussion on how to translate theories on nationalism into the school practice.

I was able to attend two history classes, for Grade 10 and Grade 12. For Grade 10 Ms. Sunita Biswas taught a class on Gandhi. Ms Biswas used a video clip of Gandhi being interviewed by a US journalist as well as an audio clip of a narration of a poem by Tagore. The class was captivated by the images and by the reciting voice. Subsequently she handed out the text of the poem which she asked the students to read and reflect on. Both of these teaching tools fed effectively into a discussion on Nationalism vis-à-vis Patriotism.

The students reflected on Sam Wineburg’s philosophy: they thought historically and explained that history was in some ways challenging, while being complex, multifaceted, one opinion never prevails. That was the product of the watchful guidance of good teachers, who stimulate and get their students engaged in research.

The team of history teachers share the same aims but they teach in different styles. Dr Kar gives her teachers freedom because she trusts them, she said; which is indicative of an open learning atmosphere in the school. The teachers spoke about influence of the parties on the National Curriculum Board and how the Board influences the selection of topics.  The most difficult aspect was seen as: how to handle the changes in perspectives. “History is all around us, it is the basis of all other disciplines”.

  1. Workshop at the Modern Academy of Continuing Education (MACE)

‘History Education- A mirror of pride and pain?'- Workshop at Modern Academy of Continuing Education.

Ineke Veldhuis-Meester in action at the workshop at Modern Academy of Continuing Education (image provided by Ineke Veldhuis-Meester)

From Paroma Sengupta’s Report.

Ineke began with a presentation on what history means to different people and how as history teachers it becomes important to take the different perceptions into account.  Some of the participants spoke about biased perceptions of history in the subcontinent. What was interesting was that both students (senior students from Modern High School) and teachers had very similar points to make regarding bias and how textbooks reflect the inherent bias of the author of the textbook and the politics of the nation at the time of writing the book.

 

Participants were grouped into 5 groups of 4-5 each for the activity, which was an exercise on how different perceptions can be, even among teachers. The teachers were asked to, first individually think of events that shaped the country. The process was then repeated, in pairs and then a larger group. The participants had to work as a group to reach a consensus, as the number of events allowed per group was limited. Interestingly, the activity started off with many participants agreeing with each other, but as the groups became larger it apparently became harder to agree! At the end of the allotted time, the participants presented their work, having recorded points on charts. Some of the common events chosen included partition and the Swadeshi movement. One of the groups mentioned ‘the emergence of a national identity’ in relation to the struggle for Independence.

May I add as author of the report, that is was a joy to me to work with such motivated teachers and trainees, who were open-minded, asked without reluctance, debated and thought deeply while constructing different kind of basic curriculum frames. One of the groups did not jot down events, but concepts: “as events develop out of concepts.” The participants were given a hand out at the end of the workshop to enhance the effectiveness of the workshop as a basis for continuing the discussion together.

Groningen, 13 February 2017, part 2

This blogpost concludes the report of Ineke Veldhuis-Meesters study visit to Calcutta. This study visit has been a part of the project “Dealing with the Past in History Education”, supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung. For more information on this project, please visit the project page

Understanding Your Own History Through Education – Part I

This is the first installment of a blogpost on Ineke Veldhuis-Meesters study visit to Calcutta, India, which took place from 6 - 13 November 2016.  It is the sixth article in a series of reports and blogposts related to the project “Dealing with the Past in History Education”. The preceding blogpost on Marios Epaminondas’ visit to Korea can be found here.

Report by Ineke Veldhuis-Meester EuroClio Ambassador to the PeaceWorks Directorate and to the Board and Secretariat of EuroClio

PeaceWorks hosted me, Ineke Veldhuis-Meester, EuroClio Ambassador and former Senior Lecturer in History Education at Groningen University, The Netherlands, from 6 to 13 November as part of a study visit which included the International Conference on Teaching History titled ‘The Idea of Nationalism’, from 10 – 12 November 2016 in Calcutta. During the full three conference days I could engage with educators from all over the subcontinent, teachers, speakers, and artists from different parts of India and from the two bordering countries Bangladesh and Pakistan. It was striking that some persons coming from the border area with Pakistan were not at the conference. They had been refused a visa to cross the border due to the ongoing conflicts at the Line of Control in Kashmir, a difficulty we experienced at some EuroClio conferences. The conference atmosphere was warm and informal, the floor was open to a manifold of concepts, thoughts and opinions, backed up by research or experience. Each day, discussion in groups was embedded in the reflection rounds and during the meals. What creates a sense of belonging in a so religiously, ethnically and ideologically diverse thinking people? And how can very distinctive nationalist models in society coexist with blurred visions? It made me think of Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities. Would it be possible that all can shelter under the ‘umbrella concept’ of ‘civic nationalism’ for which professor Anil Sethi entered a plea? It gave me hope: perhaps it could serve as a practical start.

Prior to the conference I got the chance to interact with teachers and students in schools. PeaceWorks organised five highly interesting visits to very different schools/learning Institutions, all part of their network. Programme Officer Paroma Sengupta, accompanied me at the visits, supported by Subhadrika Sen. Our welcome was a heart-warming experience! It was obvious that students and teachers were well known to Paroma by the way she was greeted. I actually tasted the reality of a common school day in a genuinely open atmosphere. Director and staff were very willing to show and explain their plans, visions, solutions and practice. The students were so open to communicate with that it did not seem like it was a first meeting.   We started with a talk with the principal/director and one or more leading teachers of the history or social studies department. Subsequently, a staff member accompanied us to show the school and visit parts of several lessons, before I could engage in a talk with teachers and students.

At the Modern Academy of Continuing Education, I introduced EuroClio in 10 minutes and subsequently I conducted a 90 minutes’ workshop for local teachers and teacher trainees on EuroClio’s methodology. In groups of 4/5 they worked hard and had a lively discussion about which concepts and key events of 20th century India to select and how to teach them, especially when there was no agreement on a topic. The teachers and teacher trainees were eager to continue to deliberate and discuss, even though they overran the scheduled time of the workshop. It was also a great experience to meet them again at the conference.

At the conference I presented EuroClio’s mission and approach, under the title ‘History Education- A mirror of pride and pain?  In those three days I learned about views on nationalism in the region and heard about policies, noticed the challenges of teaching ideas and different models of nationalism, so different from the European context. Being the only person from Europe I could ask and suggest viewpoints now and then in the discussions following the presentations. In the special reflection groups, I could engage with other participants each day. I saw these reflection groups as an asset for all participants to really get in touch with people’s different experiences and opinions in such complicated matters as teaching ideas of nationalism to better understand a person‘s different position. It was a highly informative and very successful experience. There is a keen interest to build on the idea of EuroClio in India. The study visit aimed at going to the next level; the reports of the visits to schools and the interviews with students and teachers aim to contribute to the EuroClio Project ‘Dealing with the Past in History Education’, in which the director of PeaceWorks herself is involved.

Report and reflections

The History Education Conference was centred on the concept of nationalism. The conference was constructed very well, guiding the thoughts of participants from theoretic concepts to practice in universities, schools, and politics in society. Speeches alternated with discussions and debates in smaller group reflection rounds, accompanied by another speaker in each round.

This first day, I gained many insights. And most remarkable for me was the influence of the colonial period on the constructs of nationalism and the pain of the partition from 1947 on. The effects of partition are still felt today as is the pain of ‘the war of 1971’ - differently named in Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi textbooks. Secondly the fact that there are so many diverse peoples and languages in the subcontinent, who have different histories and have been approached and used differently by the British. The openness of the participants towards me struck me as well; teachers of schools I visited the days before, introduced me to colleagues, and the teacher trainees who visited the workshop sought my company.

The second day dealt with nationalism and Leftists. Society and government were topics in the ensuing lively discussion. In the keynote address, professor of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Janaki Nair, reported what happened when they introduced a methodological change from a straight narrative to the introduction of sources and interpretation at schools. The changes were introduced in 2005 in the textbooks developed by the NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training). Students should research, read and write, debate and discuss. But students and teachers were not familiar with a more thematic textbook with more uncertain answers, it led to confusion and some lack of understanding about the curriculum demanded. The relative unpreparedness of teachers and students alike made them look for the pillars of knowledge: that was just the counter effect of what was aimed for. Janaki Nair went on to discuss the events that took place in JNU in February 2016.

Booklet on "The Idea of Nationalism" (Image provided by Ineke Veldhuis-Meester)

In this context I quote prof. Janaki Nair: “The JNU wanted critical thinking but not the sentiment. However, the predicament of history in India is that it is in the public domain.” The Teach-ins called virulently for respect for listening. “There is much to be gained by listening”. It was such a fascinating story of protest and brave determination to bring about a debate, and perseverance, despite police presence. These ‘JNU Alternative Classroom’ lectures on the historical theories of Indian and non-Indian post-colonial nationalism were spoken partly in English, partly in Hindi and recorded on You Tube. I was so intrigued by this process of debating the challenges of nationalism in public, in spite of the critics from the side of university to government and media, that when I arrived back home, I viewed all the English spoken lectures on You Tube. Deeply impressed, I realised how incomparable the processes of nation building in India and Europe are. And at the same time I recognised comparable phenomena: also in European history, nationalists pick out the parts of history that suit the creation of their myths and support their power, or even invent them, from the 19th century until present day. Janaki Nair told us that questions were raised such as: Can nationalism solve the casts issue [for Europe the class issue], the multi-linguistic problem, the multi-ethnic issue?  Is the nation the same as the state? What about the government? What is the role of the military in protecting the nation? And how do we teach to children the dilemma of the different concepts of nationalism, when they hear at home THE one vision of their parents or group nationalism?

Professor Anil Sethi pleaded in his talk “Is Nationalism a dubious Construct?” for adaptation of an inclusive concept of civic nationalism in which belonging is the ‘civicness’ of the sovereign people. This concept takes nationalism away from violence and war seeking concepts of religious, ethnic and ideological nationalism and down the civic nationalist route. At our reflection table he warned that you need to work on it constantly to create inclusive values by being politically vigilant and developing a critical attitude toward the state as a good patriot. He spoke about ‘enfranchising’, I think it meant here emancipating the ‘lower class people’ and giving them a position as citizens with a voice.

At the end of the day the author Jerry Pinto illuminated in a humorous story, Bollywood as National(ist) Cinema, the influence of popular culture on your idea of nationalism. How the images in romantic films imperceptibly creep in your mind, like the ‘Mother India’ image as the all-sacrificing woman, or what the picture means of a girl saying ‘No’ to a man: ‘only that she needs to be persuaded’. This is what I remember, the audience recognised every characteristic, as proved by bursts of laughter. The last lecture by Deepa Sreenivas titled ‘ Sculpting the Citizen: History, Pedagogy and the Amar Chitra Katha’ explained how well known illustrated books for children- the Amar Chitra Katha series- contribute to recovering Indian tradition for middle class children.

This second day ended with another aspect of the Indian history: a ceremony on the premises of a government building, a speech by the cultural historian and culture secretary, Jawhar Sircar, on The Slow Silent Emergence of a pan-Indian National Identity. I felt we were taken back to the first years after the old colonial times. The speech was held in memory of Maulana Azad, a political leader of the Indian independence movement and the first minister of Education under Nehru. Afterwards we were treated to delicious Indian food on the balcony of the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Museum devoted to Maulana Azad. The Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies (MAKAIAS) hosted the dinner and talk. It was a special Indian cultural evening.

The third day was devoted to “Thinking Beyond Borders”, introduced by a keynote address of Malini Sur, a senior research fellow at the Western Sydney University, on the Bangladeshi-Indian border. Under the heading Nationalism, Borders and Construction: Voices from the Ground the rest of the day was devoted to oral histories of the border areas and visual stories articulated in graphic novels, film and popular (calendar) art. What was similar, what was different and why?  It was obvious that in India there are hardly any public Muslim images and no references to politics, but multiple Hindu religious figures are depicted, connected with Indian nationhood and strength. In Pakistan, posters depict the typical father of the nation images or present day views of the ancient religious cities.

The last reflection round concentrated on what to take home, how to bring the multiple perspectives of the topic ‘nationalism’ into the classroom. Valuable suggestions were given, e.g. initiatives for exchange of programmes via internet, interviewing each other over the border, developing learning exercises about the same film or video material on both sides of the border that would itself lead to more different opinions allowing for discussion.

In conclusion of this first part of the blogpost: The study visit was a great and successful learning adventure, with school visits as a highlight. I was very happy with the varied selection of the schools. I learned a lot about needs and practices of the schools according to their different systems and different socio-economic backgrounds. I felt especially inspired by what I saw happening in the schools, by their staff’s endeavours, by the positive atmosphere in all five institutions I visited. I experienced schools with happy children and energetic staff members, who aimed at teaching their pupils/students knowledge and understanding in a very stimulating manner. It also covered children of varying ages and social backgrounds to develop their talents and acquire skills to become worthwhile citizens. Through this process, understanding your own history and knowing something about world history was considered an essential element. The intellectual atmosphere and debate without inhibitions as well as the cordial way of receiving me in their midst made the conference for me not only a source of learning but also a joy to attend.

Groningen, 20 February 2017, part I

This concludes first part on the report of Ineke Veldhuis-Meesters study visit to Calcutta. A more detailed report on the school visits and question and answer rounds will be available in the second part of this blogpost. This study visit has been a part of the project “Dealing with the Past in History Education”, supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung. For more information on this project, please visit the project page