Where did I learn History ?

I had always wished to write this article as an engineering student, and not as a student of history. An engineering undergraduate student who his passionate about social sciences courses.

Yet, it was only after reading Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning book,’ All the light we cannot see‘ that I was compelled to write this article. The book provides a detailed account on how the rigours of WW2 impacted the daily life of the common citizen in France and Germany. The drive to express myself on this topic was the culmination of the various pictures painted in my mind through my various readings about the Indian Independence movement and World War 2. Caught up in a retrospective mode after having read the above-mentioned novel, thinking about the Indian scenario during the 1940’s,I asked myself, “Where had I learnt more? In my eighth grade, spending a year learning the Indian independence or during the three months which I spent reading the greatest novel on Indian Independence- Freedom at Midnight. What was more responsible for the sense and understanding of Indian Independence which I now possessed?”

The book viewed the independence movement as something more than a chapter in history. To me, the freedom movement became the reason for our existence, in ways more than the history course book taught.

Having studied history all the way from the 6th grade to the 10th grade, I could never really appreciate how significant the subject was. During my post analysis of historical novels, I was asking myself, “Were we really taught history? Do we really appreciate the value of our freedom? Why, in our quest for future growth, do we forget the basic qualities which had defined us; which had united us? ”

I could see that the biggest problem lay in the manner history was taught to us and the way in which it is still being taught. We have condemned history to a subject of rote learning, full of dates and timelines and weird names of dynasties, but in this muddle, we have undermined its basic importance. History is a work of art. To actually study the subject requires imagining earlier times, not through logic but through emotions. It requires feeling the sweat of resistors amidst the stench of burning rubble in Yugoslavia. It requires feeling the blind nationalistic fervour of the teenage soldier of the Hitlerjugend. It requires appreciating our present. It requires paying tribute to our previous generations who came through mammoth ordeals to leave behind a peaceful world.

To really feel and appreciate history, we are not required to remember dates and the names of our rulers; instead we need to read the poignant letter of the young soldier, in his dying moments, to his mother. We need to read the biographies of men who survived the concentration camps. We need to read the accounts of the atrocities at Gulag in Russia. We need to understand how India would have been, had Gandhi never been the idiosyncratic freedom fighter he was. These stories, these accounts is what is missing from the subject of history in today’s middle school. My ‘formal’ classroom history course had created a void about which I never knew. An understanding of this void only came through after I started filling it, by reading and watching the literary accounts of the survivors of the 20th century.

Being an Indian I have always felt that our nation has downplayed the value of our freedom. We know the price of freedom in terms of the number of martyrs, but have not yet understood the value of their sacrifice. This is a feeling which India will have to develop as one nation. We do pride on our peaceful existence among the multi-cultural ethnicities but only if we could remember the people who made it possible in times of savage racial abuse and bloodshed.

The solution to understanding history needs to start from the bottom up. It begins in the middle schools teaching history. The course should not be just numbers and dates. Schools and teachers will have to make efforts to screen documentaries and include historical accounts into history books.

Only when we understand our country’s history do we begin to appreciate our nation’s existence. 15th August and 26th January remain no more than holidays if we cannot remember the martyrs who sacrificed their lives at the altar of freedom. Only then do we keep up the spirit of the Amar Jawan Jyoti.

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