THE study of History as an academic discipline needs some changes in our modern setting. The subject as I studied it in my schooldays has become irrelevant. If not for the fact that History is a compulsory pass in SPM, I’m sure a majority of students would drop it.
When I told my friends and family that I was going to major in History for my undergraduate studies, the reaction was disappointing but not surprising. Many said it was their least favourite subject in school.
I do not blame them at all. The subject was dry, saturated with dates and names and did not make any sense to our modern sensibilities. I do admit that there are students who are interested in History, including myself, but our number is small compared to the tens of thousands of school children year after year who
have to suffer the subject in order to get the required pass. Once exams are over, all the facts and figures of history would be forgotten.
Inevitably, downgrading the value of History manifests in dismal attendance to museums and display of nonchalance when a historical site in our country is torn down to make way for development.
I recommend four changes to be made to the way we currently learn and teach History.
First, expand the topics on social and cultural history. One of the reasons History is boring is that it focuses so much on the personalities and themes in politics that it disengages us from the events that actually took place. Social and cultural history covers art, interactions and norms that we observe.
One key element we should include in the subject is cultural familiarisation to give students the opportunity to know the cultures of their fellow Malaysians in other states. Take a historical angle to investigate and introduce to them the cultures of each state. Open their minds to the beauty of our diverse cultures by making them understand their origins, similarities and differences. Why does Kelantan have the wayang kulit? Why is pottery so prominent in Perak? What influences the cuisines of Johor? How did the Sabahans and Sarawakians develop their local dialects?
This brings me to my second suggestion, which is to emphasise the relevance of history. Learning history involves taking in facts such as dates, name of treatises, famous or infamous personalities, battles and etc. But how do we make these facts relevant? I have observed that students in Britain discuss the facts to understand their relevance apart from just committing them to memory. Malaysian students tend to stress on memorisation because it seems easier and consumes less time. This prevents students from understanding and appreciating the importance of History.
My third suggestion is to make knowledge of history critical for nation-building. In other words, lessons should offer room for critical discussion on democracy, equality, good governance and art.
This is especially crucial given that our voting age has been reduced to 18. I spent six years teaching 18- and 19-year-olds at a local university in the earlier period of my career and I can safely say that while they are bright and enthusiastic, many of them were too cautious, restrained and uncritical when important subjects were broached. Even more alarming, whenever an argument is made, the facts cited are superficial and with almost no demonstration of historical knowledge. This makes me question whether our 18-year-olds are actually mature enough to vote in the country’s general elections.
Something must be done to bridge the gap between what students learn in school and what is going on in their life. History may not provide all the answers, but teaching children that it is an interpreted set of data that needs to be questioned and reflected upon can lead to knowledge that would assist in nation-building.
Finally, where are the Orang Asli in our history textbooks? Where are the ethnic groups from Sabah and Sarawak? Why have we not shared their narratives? From ancient to post-colonial history, we should incorporate as much as possible the history of the Malays, Orang Asli, Chinese, Indian, Iban, Bajau, Penan and many more to form a coherent historical account. We set out to build a nation together when we declared our independence, and despite our squabbles, we are still family. I believe history education can be a means to reinforce the notion that we are family.
Change must be instituted to make History interesting and relevant. Inculcation of values should be the end game, not the enforcement of ideas. Therefore, I hope policymakers can consider these suggestions and take the necessary steps to make history education more significant in nation-building than it currently is.
NUR DAYANA MOHAMED ARIFFIN , History Department Universiti Malaya
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