“History as a narrative derived from large passages of time, collective experience, and emotion should engage the young and not be told with a long face” (More To History Than Just Recalling, The Straits Times Says).
It is true that pedagogies matter when history is taught in the classroom. Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said that Singapore’s history can be better communicated for the young to relate to historical facts and understand their implications for the future, and in this vein strategies have been suggested: “[to harness] pop culture, different forms of media, or even school trips to historical sites, both here and in the region” (ST, Aug. 14).
Yet perhaps what is more important – beyond the “how” – is the “what”. Premised upon the objectives of inculcating historical consciousness, encouraging evaluations of past judgements and actions, as well as applying these lessons, the Ministry of Education (MOE) should also review the content taught to the young. Common criticisms include: an over-emphasis on the purported success of post-independence Singapore, with little said about ancient or even modern Singapore; the absence of diverse narratives, especially with the more controversial episodes; and the insistence to foist nation-building in these endeavours.
The inability to “probe different interpretations of history” feeds scepticism too. With the proliferation of information and alternative perspectives on the Internet, these doubts will only intensify if the MOE does not keep pace. It may also be plausible that the present disconnect could be traced to the content used, and not necessarily the pedagogies.
For this undertaking – to reinforce historical touchpoints – to succeed, it may be wise to engage former students and present educators in discourse, to thereby gather feedback on their experiences in the classroom. Could they connect with the skills and knowledge shared? Did they feel adequately informed after history lessons, or were there weaknesses to be plugged? Were there opportunities to challenge the information, and did the teachers feel quipped to facilitate more open discourse about historical chapters? In fact through these conversations, best practices can be shared too, to “champion historical inquiry as both a way of helping the young to connect the past with the present and of fostering critical thinking”.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.