History being one of the subjects I teach I try to keep abreast with the current developments in the field and often revisit the Old Masters of the field with the hope of understanding both the new and the old better. Following are three of the books I have read/re-read recently.
- Thiranagama, Sharika. In My Mother’s House. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania UP, 2011.
- Weiss, Gordon. The Cage. London: Bodley Head, 2011.
- . London: Portable, 2012.
Interestingly all three books had been written on Sri Lanka by outsiders. And all three had received wide publicity/accolade as authentic sources of their subject matter by the so-called international community. Going through the well-stocked shelves of the leading bookstores in my quest for more of the kind I have come across some work on the subject covered by these by writers based in Sri Lanka. However, they have failed to generate the kind of reception given to ‘Thiranagama’, Weiss, and Harrison. The conclusion I was forced to draw from this is that while most of us are going on with the daily grind blissfully unaware of what is going on one-sided accounts of our history is being written by people who have no idea of the historical processes that have shaped our nation. And if some measures are not taken to present history from the point of view of the actual participants, then fifty years from now the future generations would be using these writers as the sole authorities on the contemporary history of Sri Lanka. However, having said that, it is also the sad truth that most ‘native’ writers do not have the kind of contacts or the money to market their work no matter how good it is, especially at the international level. Moreover, the historical point of view of the so-called majority does not seem to receive the same degree of validity automatically accorded to the so-called minority voices at many international (and lately at national) forums. Consequently, this being a nebulous time of the history of our nation I felt that I should share some of my thoughts on my vocation – that is how I see teaching History – and its role in shaping the consciousness of the generations to come.
This being an individualist consumerist time, I have often come across people sweeping aside history as a dead thing. Live for the moment and in the moment seems to be the motto of the Nano-Age. According to many of them the time one spend on learning a subject like history would yield greater dividends should s/he spend it on something useful like an international language, Science, or Mathematics. Consequently, the first obstacle a teacher of History has to overcome is convincing his or her students that History has utility value as a subject. As the eminent historian E H Carr very rightly points out “history consists essentially in seeing the past through the eyes of the present and in the light of its problems” (What is History, 21). He further adds:
The common-sense view of history treats it as something written by individuals about individuals. This view was certainly taken and encouraged by nineteenth-century liberal historians, and not in substance incorrect. But it now seems over-simplified and inadequate, and we need to probe deeper. The knowledge of the historian is not his exclusive individual possession: men, probably, of many generations and of many different countries participated in accumulating it. The men whose actions historian studies were not isolated individuals acting in a vacuum: they acted in the context, and under the impulse, of a past society. (E H Carr What is History, 35).
Hence, studying history, far from being a useless study of some glorified individuals, would while grounding one in one’s context give valuable insights into the roots of various issues that one is currently grappling with. This is what a doctor does when he asks a patient about the history of a disease; this is what a lawyer does when he quizzes his client on the history of a ‘case’; this is what a business tycoon does when he studies a rival business earmarked for a takeover; and this is what climatologist does when he studies the weather patterns of the past 300 years before making predictions on the issue of the climate change. In short, history is being ‘done’ everywhere by everyone around us day in and day out as an essential part of his/her existence.
Interestingly, there was a time in the not so far away past when the study of history, personal as well as racial, had been give the pride of place. So what has created this hostility towards learning one’s history is worth investigating. My feeling is that this new animosity towards history and the rise of the Middleclass, Capitalism and Neo/colonialism go hand in hand.
Sri Lanka as a nation has a long history compared to a newbie nation like the USA. Yet the weight placed on the importance of teaching Sri Lankan history to its citizen by the government of Sri Lanka is much less compared to the strenuous efforts made by the governing bodies of the USA. Libraries in Sri Lanka are full of historical records and they often sit on the shelves gathering dust. In fact many Western-finished academics and those who are influenced by them treat the accumulated historical records of Sri Lanka as trivia or gossip columns that do not deserve a second glance let alone actual studying. And with the emergence of the individualistic liberalist capitalistic socio-economic policies sponsored by the neo-colonialists of the West and their stooges operating from within Sri Lanka in the late 1970s, the term history has become a dirty word. Consequently, the decision makers of the government of Sri Lanka have swept aside the importance of History as a subject so that it does not receive enough space in curricula at school level. Though History is taught at school as a subject from Grades 6 to 11, only two periods are allocated per week while English Language is given 5 periods. This attitude often discourages those who are inclined towards making the study of history one’s chosen field of expertise. Thus, only a few students select History as a subject at the Advanced Level Examination or as their major at university level. As a result today many a Department of History in the universities in Sri Lanka is manned by academics who have failed to make a single noteworthy contribution to his/her own nation under his/her name. The sad state of affairs had come glaring to light in the well-documented ‘battle’ between Professors R. A. L. H. Gunawardane and K. N. O Dharmadasa in which a don of a department of Archaeology had to offer a rebuttal to an argument presented by a don of History department on the nation-ness of the Sinhalese because those from the latter department would not or could not offer one. And it is under such inhospitable conditions that those souls who teach History strive to breathe life to these often neglected yet essential works on Sri Lankan history.
I would grant that teaching History, especially teaching History in a post-colonial country like Sri Lanka, is not an easy task. It is not, I would like to think, as straight forward as teaching Science or Mathematics for in teaching History one has to negotiate not only with the historian’s version of history but also with one’s own personal histories as well as the personal histories of those who sit in front of him/her. It calls for a lot of skills and qualities that are often at odds with each other. One has to have passion for what s/he teaches but at the same time be willing to see both the good and the bad of the subjects of his/her subject. One has to be truthful: one must not hide from one’s charges that most of those we call national heroes in actuality are the worst enemies of the nation. Yet, one should not stripe one’s pupils of these illusions too fast too soon for it could cause extreme disorientation which could be catastrophic for a nation that is suffering from an acute case of identity crisis at the moment. The History teacher must also contend with the lack of understanding in the officials of the significance of the subject. Syllabuses are changed and students are overloaded with trivia from world history which prevents both the teacher and the student from appreciating great historical moments and significant personalities of their own history. For example, Wasteland Ordinance is given as a change brought about Colebrook Commission of 1833 but there is no room for discussions on how a significant historical decision like the Wasteland Ordinance contribute to urban poverty and landlessness in Sri Lanka. Yet an entire lesson is allocated to studying the spread of Islam in Asia. In such a context as a History teacher I am often forced to resort to the triage system practiced by emergency workers. Consequently, many important local historical moments and personalities are just mentioned in passing and reduced to a word or two in the ‘note’ in favour of allocating meaningful time to at least one or two of the most significant of their kind. Sadly it is the student as the future citizen that is on the losing side. Therefore it is important that a panel of wise men and women well-versed in the field must be appointed in fashioning syllabuses at both school and university levels that would reflect positively on the nation in the long run through their contribution towards fashioning citizens who care for their birthright. In the meanwhile, considering the intricacy of the decision making involved in teaching, it is disastrous to use armatures in teaching History as a subject. Therefore due attention must also be paid to training a corps of dedicated, wise, and well-versed teachers of History as soon as possible.
According to Iain McGillchrist our defective civilization is on its way towards self-annihilation. While this might prove to be true in the long run it is patent that the civilization nurtured by the Sinhalese in this island nation is facing an imminent threat of being obliterated by forces that are working against it. Maybe through ignorance, apathy, or by design, as long as the teachers of History become party to the conspiracy of maintaining the neo-liberal capitalist myths propagated by most of those at the top layer of Sri Lankan society the nation as a whole would remain in that Platonic cave looking at the shadow show staged for their benefit by those hegemonic powers who would use the ignorance of the ‘majority’ to further consolidate their position and carry on with the agendas of their paymasters abroad. Those few at the top who crave absolute domination have tricked the masses into relinquishing their sovereignty in the name of representative democracy with what Louis Althusser aptly called Ideological State Apparatus (ISA). Furthermore, with effective use of ISA, these power-mongers have effectively turned the very fruits of our loins against their heritage. Today, many a member of the younger generation is up in arms ready to castrate the nation by rendering its history irrelevant. Those few souls with their Janus-like vision still intact like Gunadasa Amarasekara and Nalin de Silva are discarded unceremoniously along the wayside as extremists against ethnic reconciliation – the all-important journey towards an ethnic melting pot in which only the Sinhalese melt to become something else. Interestingly, the USA the very country that first advocated this notion has since discarded this view as impractical.
Under such situation it is the duty of the teacher of History to help his/her students understand who his/her enemies and their modus operandi so that they would not be broadsided unawares as we have been a countless number of times in the past. in order to do so the teacher of History must first make that arduous journey towards light and then return to the cave to guide those who are still within – if need be kicking and screaming – towards that selfsame light.
 Gunawardane, R. A. L. H. “The People of the Lion: The Sinhala Identity and Ideology in History and Historiography.” The Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities. Vol. V Numbers 1&2 Peradeniya: University of Peradeniya, 1979.
---, Historiography in a Time of Ethnic Conflict. Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 1995.
Dharmadasa. K.N.O. “People of the Lion: Ethnic Identity, Ideology and Historical Revisionism in Contemporary Sri Lanka” The Sri Lanka Journal of Humanities. Vol. XV numbers 1&2 1989