We are what we are today because of history.

This article was orginally published in The Straits Times’ Youthink. The author, Eisen Teo, kindly allowed me to publish his work on this blog. Thank you once again Eisen 🙂

HISTORY is boring. Dead boring.

That’s the refrain of about half a dozen secondary school students I’ve talked to in the course of my work.

History is just about a bunch of facts and dates we have to cram for exams, they say. And what’s the significance of these facts and dates? They shrug; they aren’t sure.

Never mind that part of their O-level history examination is ‘source-based’, that is, testing their ability to assess the purpose, arguments and credibility of a historical source, such as a text excerpt, speech or interview.

Everything still boils down to facts, facts and more facts. If you don’t hit the books and know what happened at this date, you’re done for.

With just two or three school periods a week – that’s no more than 11/2 hours – given over to history, the beleaguered teacher has little time or incentive to make the lesson more interesting. The priority still remains making sure the students know what’s going to be tested inside out.

No wonder history just becomes another boring subject to get over and be done with.

So what, you may ask.

The long-term repercussions may be severe: a generation of Singaporeans with little knowledge or interest in how Singapore came to be, and little understanding of the world around them.

In 2005, eight 15-year-old students at a school band leadership camp named their team ‘Hitler’ because they admired the dictator’s leadership qualities.

In hindsight, teachers said, their support for the man responsible for the death of millions during World War II was a combination of ignorance and a lack of understanding of history.

When founding father S. Rajaratnam died the following year, many young Singaporeans were left scratching their heads as to who he was, even though they recited every morning, hand on heart, the Pledge that he had penned.

Do we really want such ignorance and apathy?

The Government wants young people to remain rooted to the land in which they were born, long after they fly the coop. This was one of the 10 challenges Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong threw to policymakers last month.

A strong grounding in history may be the fertile soil for those roots. A keen interest in Singapore’s history and world history in general helps one understand this country’s place in the world.

Learning from past mistakes and taking a critical approach towards all ‘truths’ are other useful side benefits of a fruitful time spent on history.

What’s the solution, then?

To me, nothing short of an overhaul of how history is taught in schools.

Make history exams open-book. A radical move but it’ll test what’s most crucial: the analytical skills that not just a student of history, but any student, needs – not his ability to memorise facts and dates.

With this change, the history textbook will morph from an enemy into a friend, to be consulted at all times – and students will find it less onerous to read.

The curriculum must also move away from the raw presentation of events to the discussion of historical issues and methods of history, known as historiography.

Many historical facts can never be disputed – for example, the fact that Raffles set up a port in Singapore in 1819, or that two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945.

But the same facts can be employed to paint different narratives.

Depending on which sources one looks at, it could be argued that 1819 heralded the beginning of modern Singapore – or was simply the start of the latest in a series of trading emporiums on the island.

The latter thesis will be put forth in Singapore, A 700-Year History: From Early Emporium To World City, a new book by historians Tan Tai Yong, Derek Heng and Kwa Chong Guan.

Only then will students realise that historical texts are written long after the fact as a means to an end which varies with the author and the society he comes from. It will foster the beginnings of a healthy scepticism and sense of reality.

Is it too early for secondary school students to grasp such concepts? It’s worth a try to grab their fleeting attention.

The alternative is a lifelong rejection of anything to do with history.

And oh, please do devote at least an hour more a week to history. Take it as an investment for our future.

I love history. Yeah, I really do. I think its cool to know how the movers and shakers of this world came about. Yes, history can be boring at times but its not going to change a thing by using different methods of notes or presentation to engage the students. Its how it is taught.

A good history teacher is a person who tell great stories, who tells vivid stories that you feel like you were there at the time the event happened.

While I feel that having an open book format for exams is a great idea, I think that it won’t do anything to improve a student’s interest in history lessons. Students will just copy word for word without fully understanding the impact of the particular event in history.

So I say, leave the books and presentations alone. Find good storytellers.

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