Why we need more Indian history at school

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An investigation into the place of India in the proposed changes to the NSW History syllabus

Indian history.Indian Link

Set for a 2018 rollout, significant syllabus amendments have been planned for Maths, English, Science and History, in what NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli calls the “largest changes to the HSC in a generation”. This follows the State and Territory Education Ministers’ endorsement of a national senior secondary Australian curriculum with the flexibility to integrate the approved curriculum as appropriate.

As the consultation process launched in 2014 by the Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards NSW (BOSTES) concludes this August, the draft syllabus of the Modern History curriculum, published online and currently available for public comment, has academics and community members clearly concerned not just about a continuing “Eurocentric” bias, but more significantly the “degradation” of modern India content.

“Teaching Indian history is one of the most neglected parts of the western schooling curriculum,” wrote Sydney University Associate Professor Tim Allender, an authority on History of Education.

Expressing disappointment at the draft curriculum’s failure to take into consideration several recommendations, including the need to shift away from a Eurocentric focus and the need to address the cultural diversity of students, the History Teachers Association (HTA) response noted that, “India has disappeared. To some extent, the content of this topic has been used elsewhere.”

Indian history.Indian Link
1909 map of India

The proposed changes

Until now, Year 11 students of Modern History could explore, among many alternatives, the Indian Mutiny (1857) as one of two Case Studies. During the HSC, students could continue and consolidate their preliminary studies through the topic Twentieth Century National Studies, with ‘India (1919-1947)’ as one of many options. In addition, the legacy of either Jawaharlal Nehru or Mohammed Jinnah could also be investigated under Personality Studies to give them an in-depth understanding of the role of leadership in shifting trends from imperialism and colonialism to the birth of democracy.

Besides studying the Sepoy Mutiny in detail, which is often heralded as the catalyst for the rise of the Independence movement, the previous syllabus covered Gandhi and nationalism in the 1920s; Congress consolidation in the 1930s; and Muslims and politics in the 1930s; and the road to Independence and Partition (see boardofstudies.nsw.edu.au/syllabus_hsc).

Unfortunately, in the draft proposal, ‘India (1919-1947)’ as a study option has been axed from the published list of National Studies, and will therefore no longer be an examinable topic in the HSC, reappearing instead as ‘The British in India and Mahatma Gandhi’ in a diluted form in the preliminary course. The Sepoy Mutiny has been excluded entirely (see the link at the end of this piece).

Indian history.Indian Link

The move has justifiably incensed retired history teacher Dr Ian Simpson, with three decades of experience behind him.

“It is a needless change, with no sense or justification. This move seems particularly arbitrary and unwarranted,” Dr Simpson told Indian Link in a scathing attack.

“While ‘The British in India and Mahatma Gandhi’ is included as a topic in Case Studies in Year 11, this is presented in a greatly simplified version of what was contained in the previous syllabus,” he explained. “True, India has attracted a small number of students in recent times, but this would seem an insufficient reason for its exclusion, particularly in view of the fact that Australia, Indonesia and Japan, with even smaller candidatures (and of much poorer academic standards) have survived.”

It hardly needs emphasizing that India will figure prominently in the lives of our students in the coming decades; the likelihood that few of them will finish their schooling with any knowledge of its culture and history is deeply concerning, Dr Simpson added.

Indian history.Indian Link
Dr Ian Simpson

Describing the draft as “retrograde” and “a relic of the mid-twentieth century, focused above all else on the nation state and Western Europe”, Dr Simpson emphatically stated that it “looks backward, rather than to the future”.

Meanwhile, Craig Jeffrey, Director of the Australia India Institute wrote in response to Indian Link’s query, “India is the future. Young Australians are more likely than any previous generation to be working with Indian citizens. They need to be India literate. Australia should be strengthening rather than weakening its teaching on India.”

Hindi language activist and Pravasi Bharatiya Samman awardee, Mala Mehta OAM is understandably disappointed with the proposed curriculum changes.

“Coinciding with the release of “Australia in the Asian Century White Paper”, the 2015 inclusion of Hindi in the national curriculum alongside Mandarin and the development of a K-10 Curriculum by ACARA reflected Australia’s acknowledgement of India as part of Asia, and of the 21st century as the ‘Asian Century’. However, I would like to express my concerns with the draft NSW Modern History syllabus as it fails to respond to the important trends in the writing of history that have emerged in the last few decades, in particular with modern Indian history,” she stated, weighing in on the debate.

“In the years to come, India will be the primary services provider as it has one of the youngest populations in the world with an average age of 26 years. Therefore, BOSTES should have extended the areas of study on modern Indian history. Instead, it limits students to investigate relevant historical sources and issues only to examine the British in India and the role of Mahatma Gandhi.”

Indian history.Indian Link
Mala Mehta

On the other hand, in the Senior Secondary Australian Curriculum: Modern History, in unit 3 the study on modern Indian history goes from 1947-1974 following India from Independence to the First Nuclear Test, Mehta pointed out.

This gives an overview of India in 1947 as background for more intensive study of the period, including the role and impact of significant individuals, she noted.

Besides the greatly simplified version in the current draft, Mehta is also shocked by its inaccuracies.

The statement ‘Gandhi’s Jain pacifist beliefs’ in Case Studies B.3 is erroneous. While his upbringing was infused with the pacifist teachings of mutual tolerance, non-injury to living beings and vegetarianism due to his mother’s religious devotion, it was only one of a series of philosophies that influenced the development of Gandhi’s thought and practice, as was Hinduism and Christianity, Mehta asserted, echoing Dr Simpson’s sentiments.

Seeking more choices for History teachers

Spearheading a call to action, Dr Simpson believes that the Board’s decision to degrade the status of Indian history is an affront, not merely to the Indian community here in Australia, but to the nation of India itself. “India is without doubt a prominent neighbour. It would be a big disadvantage to our students, teachers and our nation itself if we continue to ignore India with our antiquated European bias,” he said.

Lobbying on behalf of the prominent ethnic minority, the former teacher has written to peak bodies representing the community, as well as Board of Studies President Tom Alegounaris.

“Moreover, it is an affront to those teachers and students in NSW schools who have been attracted to the topic in the past as it removes their freedom to teach and study Indian history. Schools that teach India have a highly committed group of teachers and very high HSC outcomes,” he added.

Indian history.Indian Link

Indian history has been very popular with Stage 6 students at both Loreto Kirribili and Normanhurst.

“I have seen the changes proposed by BOSTES and am somewhat disappointed by the alterations,” noted Marco Scali, Head of History at Loreto Normanhurst.

“The Gandhi option in Year 11 is something, but a very watered-down version of the course. I have proposed that the Indian Rebellion of 1857 remain in the Year 11 course as well, as this is something that our students enjoy and is a nicely contained unit.”

“I myself am malleable and can teach any National Study that is decided upon by BOSTES. My issue is that there is no need to cut courses just for the sake of it. In my view, the more options the better as this will give teachers more freedom to choose what they want,” he reiterated.

indian history.Indian Link

In fact, Loreto Kirribili’s Christopher Tidyman will be addressing the History Teachers Association’s national seminar next month.

Speaking on ‘Languages of Revolution: Reframing the Indian Nationalist Movement 1885-1947’, his presentation will bring into question and challenge the nature of choices history teachers and their students make which appears to somewhat validate and endorse the study of certain national histories and their historical significance at the expense of others deemed less important.

“Teaching the Indian Nationalist Movement 1885-1947 allows for a broader investigation about how individuals and groups enact to bring about a re-alignment of power and the types of political language – words, actions, symbols, gestures – employed to mobilise and empower people across the societal class spectrum and in the specific Indian context gender and caste system. Indian history challenges both teachers and students to explore non-Western philosophies and practices and, through this exploration, become more authentic critical and creative thinkers.”

According to the programme published by the HTA, the presentation “hopes to challenge”, again in the words of Assoc. Prof. Tim Allender, “‘the unrelenting Eurocentric orientation of our teaching and learning in schools’”.

Indian history.Indian Link

In addition, Dr Simpson is of the opinion that “The proposed curriculum burdens our students with an indifference to Asia, at the least, and at the worst, an ignorance. While the draft proclaims ‘Asia and Australia’s Engagement with Asia’ as one of its Cross-Curriculum Priorities and several options are provided for the study of Asian topics, I am concerned that the eventual impact of this change in the draft syllabus, if enacted in its present form, will be to further consolidate a Eurocentric view of History at the expense of the study of Asian histories. If the Board truly has a serious commitment to ‘Asia literacy’, then this syllabus as it stands will do little to achieve the objective. The Board must immediately begin on a process of review of the draft that will lead to a thorough revision.”

 “Successive syllabuses structured along these lines have only resulted in an ever-decreasing number of students studying Asian history options. The Board might well be serious in its intentions, but in practice it is difficult to identify exactly how and where the draft syllabus will encourage an interest in and love for Asian histories and cultures,” Dr Simpson said.

During the 1970s and 1980s, students’ interest in Asian histories peaked. Twentieth Century China frequently ranked as the third most popular National Study. Two teams of HSC markers needed to be briefed on answers in the Asian sections of the syllabus.

Since then, numbers and interest have dropped. “In some small part, this is due to the retirement of those History teachers who graduated from Australian universities in the 1970s with a special interest in Asian studies,” Dr Simpson suggested. “More seriously, the decline has been due to the structure of the previous syllabus itself. When World War I was confirmed as the compulsory Core Study, it simply made sense, many teachers must have thought, to program those other sections that aligned closely with it; Germany, Russia, Conflict in Europe and so on. The draft syllabus appears to follow this model; the most likely response of teachers will be to program ‘safely’ and once again select a sequence of topics concentrating on Europe.”

Indian history.Indian Link

Similarly, when ‘Nazi Germany (1933-39)’ was made the compulsory Core Study for all Modern History students, this encouraged teachers to choose ‘Germany (1914-1933)’ as their National Study, Dr Simpson argued. “The very likely outcome of the proposed syllabus is that most NSW Modern History students will spend at least 100 hours of the 240 hours indicative time for their course in Years 11 and 12 on Western Europe, over a very narrow time span of 25 years. Furthermore, we might expect a sizeable number of these students would study ‘Conflict in Europe’ as their choice in the ‘Peace and Conflict’ section of the syllabus. Other options in European history are available for study in Year 11 as well. Rather than moving our students towards an appreciation and command of ‘Asia literacy’, we would be witnessing a narrowing of knowledge.”

The student perspective

Gautham Shankar, who is currently pursuing a double degree at UNSW, was attracted to HSC Modern History for the fantastic insights it offered into evolving national identity, value system and global citizenship.

“It is not often that students learn about the formation of current day nations or the origins of a renowned personality,” he explained. Shankar is interested in the rise of India in the twentieth century as the world’s largest democracy, and its process of freedom from monarchy, one which Australia is yet to undertake.

Yet he was unable to opt for India studies, as it was not an available preference at his high school.

“Students do not have much choice as focal study in HSC Modern History is completely dependent on the teacher.” To that extent, he believes that prevalent Eurocentric bias is not entirely the fault of the syllabus alone.

Indian history.Indian Link
There’s more to Indian history than dinosaurs and Dhoni

“However, the bias is fuelled by the amount of resources available and the way the curriculum is structured. Popular topics such as Germany and Japan have numerous resources thus ensuring teachers can guide students to sophisticated outcomes,” he explained. “It is therefore hard to push for stronger curriculum basis, as teachers need assurance that there are enough materials for them to teach with and for students to learn from.”

If a rekindling of interest must occur, it has to be targeted towards teachers. “By removing significant India content, teachers will not only not teach, but also favour the more popular European topics instead, and this could just create a cycle where more and more Asian topics are removed due to lack of popularity,” he lamented.

Indian history.Indian Link

University of Sydney Media and Communications student Aparna Balakumar has just retuned from a successful exchange at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai. The former HSC First in Course (Society & Culture) student was granted a New Colombo Plan government scholarship to pursue the history exchange.

“Our group comprised of predominantly non-Indians and this was, for most, their first time travelling to India or learning about our culture,” she stated.

“Now they all hope to return, have a deepened understanding of what occurred during the Medieval Period in India and many are considering working in the region in foreign relations. While an invaluable experience, this is obviously not an opportunity every Australian student can undertake. Embedding it within our high school syllabus would spark interest and encourage further study of the region at a tertiary level,” she said.

“Even when I spoke to the staff at the Australian Consulate General in Mumbai they agreed that demand to learn Hindi would increase significantly amongst Australian students within the next decade, just as it did for China in the decade prior. Education is the key to increased understanding, and I personally think the syllabus changes show a lack of foresight and will only encourage complacency about a country the next generation of Australians cannot afford to ignore.”

The Board replies

Indian history.Indian Link

When contacted by Indian Link for a comment, Media Director of BOSTES Michael Charlton provided the following response:

“The topic ‘India 1919-1947’ was previously offered alongside more popular Year 12 options such as the national studies for Germany and Russia and the Soviet Union. There is now a New Year 11 case study, ‘The British in India and Mahatma Ghandi’ (sic). Students can also study the role of Indira Ghandi (sic) in the case study ‘The Environment Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.’
In the draft syllabuses there are more opportunities than before to study India. For the first time, India has been included in the History Extension course, enabling students to focus on the ‘Partition of India’ at a more sophisticated level than was possible in the Modern History course. Also for the first time, India has been included in Ancient History, through a study of Ashoka and key features of society in India. This means that India, unlike Indonesia and Japan for example, features in all three senior history syllabuses.”
Dr Simpson, however, is not convinced.

“The BOSTES’ reply does nothing to allay my primary concern that the ultimate outcome of the draft as it stands will be to consolidate a Eurocentric view of history and do little to achieve ‘Asia literacy’,” he commented. “It also ignores the substantive issues of my concerns i.e. that the status of modern Indian history has been degraded as a result of its omission from the National Studies (and therefore the likelihood of schools choosing to teach it is reduced). It is difficult to see teachers choosing the Year 11 option on Gandhi and the British in isolation from the rest of the course, as it does not offer any background or introduction to any of the listed Year 12 topics. Removing India from the National Studies in Year 12 does degrade the subject as it means modern India will no longer be an examinable topic in the HSC (which in turn involves a loss of status). Offering the simplified version as a Year 11 option does nothing to redress this, and teachers were able to teach such a topic in Year 11 in any case in previous syllabuses.”

Indian history.Indian Link

Dr Simpson has instead suggested replacing this topic with a study of the British Raj in the 19th Century as a Year 11 case study and restoring India 1919-1947 as a National Study for Year 12.

“This would meet my concerns and also the stated intentions of the Board to broaden the choices for the study of India. The fact that India is included in three syllabuses (ancient, modern and extension) is to be welcomed, although the claim that “for the first time, India has been included in Ancient History” is false. The previous syllabus includes “Indian Cave Temples” as a suggested Case Study in Year 11, so there is no change there. Ancient History remains a “European Ancient History” course.

Second, that “India has been included in the History Extension course, enabling students to focus on the ‘Partition of India’ at a more sophisticated level than was possible in the Modern History course” is also not quite right. In ‘European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century’ (which I am pleased to see survives in the draft), the study of India was an obvious and integral part of the course. I know this well, as I used to teach it. Again, no great change here.

So the net result is that overall, there is no real addition to the number of opportunities for studying India (I take note of the brief but unspecified reference to Indira Gandhi in the Year 11 Case Study of the environment). Instead the examinable Year 12 content has been dropped. Finally, the BOSTES officer has misspelt Gandhi twice,” Dr Simpson replied.

He has urged the Indian community to voice its concerns and demand changes in the curriculum, so that future students can learn more about India’s history in a formal setting.

To voice your concerns about Indian history in the NSW syllabus, take the survey  on the Board’s website (http://www.boardofstudies.nsw.edu.au/syllabuses/curriculum-development/senior-years.html) before 31 August 2016