If you poll a bunch of high schoolers on their favourite subjects, chances are, history will not figure high on that list. Ask their parents and the reaction to history will definitely be more stridently negative. Press for reasons and you will hear dark mutterings of 'boring' or 'irrelevant'.
There are two forces at work here. In the majority of cases, class room experience of history is not the most exciting. Most adults will tell you that history to them meant yawn-inducing lessons that required endless lists of regurgitated names and dates, detailed knowledge about dead people and, as someone once eloquently described it, 'just one damned thing after another!' Occasionally, a rare teacher will engage a class with meaningful connections between past and present, dramatic stories that would give Game of Thrones a run for its money, highlighting themes, values and issues that children would find interesting and relevant to their own lives. But that is a rare teacher and her students are a lucky minority.
The second, more insidious problem is the question of 'relevance.' The products of historical study are not tangible. History students typically would not be able to build planes or perform open heart surgeries. They will not grab lucrative jobs in medicine and engineering - the aspiration of a vast multitude of Indian parents today. So, if history is just stuff that happened in the past and has no utility in our bright and technology-driven future, it is more easily relegated to the bottom of the popular subjects list.
It's enough to make the disappointed and browbeaten historian retreat into her academic tower to churn out more obscure tomes about the past.
However, we seem to be living a contradiction. Because, what could possibly explain the huge popularity of historical fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, children's books and movies? The packed cinemas for lavishly made period movies? And the oft-heard comment of the fans, "I hated history in school, but this is different!?"
Despite the professed indifference to the subject, history as the story of human experience seems to strike a deep and resonant chord in every human. Could this be because we are ourselves living histories? Consider the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the languages we speak, our beliefs and traditions, our values and technologies, even our genetic makeup. They have all evolved through complex historical processes. Centuries of change and challenge have shaped us into who we are today.
And contrary to the general perception that history is all in the past, it lives amidst us today. Think, for example of the beautiful rock and pillar edicts of the legendary emperor Ashoka. At the height of his power, he realized the suffering caused by his incessant wars, actually apologized to his people and vowed to look after them better. Almost twenty-three centuries later, his path of non-violence was the same one Mahatma Gandhi used as his weapon of choice in the struggle for independence.
Imagine the eclectic times of the King Kanishka in the early centuries of the Common Era. He professed Buddhism but his coins depict Shiva and Nandi, Persian gods Mithra and Atash and even the Greek god Helios. Graeco-Roman artists introduced a Greek style to Indian themes so Buddhas were carved with curly hair and flowing togas with attendants wearing Roman-style sandals. A true fusion of religious beliefs, arts and cultures. Early signs of that acceptance and tolerance that has always been the hallmark of our country.
Just a couple of the many examples from history that help us to understand ourselves, our place in the world today and the ways in which we can build the future.
A formal, systematic study of history, with its methodologies and logic becomes a valuable tool to understand not just ourselves but the people and cultures who are different from us, building empathy. It also helps us understand or seek change as better informed citizens and gives us a perspective of where we stand in the march of time. These are important reasons to read history and understand its often rigorous methods.
For those who fear it is too late to go back to the classroom, all is not lost!
It appears that historians have heard the lament of the history classrooms. For every overwhelmingly dull history text book you've ever read, there is now a slew of deeply researched, articulately expressed works on history that give the reading public access to the subject as never before. There are brightly illustrated books on history crowding the children's section of the bookshop. And historians are the new rock stars of the world of literature!
Read on, because history is too important to be boring!
(Devika Cariapa is an archaeologist & children's books writer. Devika has recently co-written a book with acclaimed historian William Dalrymple & BBC presenter Anita Anand called 'The Adventures of Kohinoor'. Available on Amazon and Flipkart now.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.