A Plea To Revitalize The Study Of History

31/07/2016 5:28 AM IST | Updated 23/08/2016 8:32 AM IST
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I wrote this letter back in 2011, just six months after graduating with a BA (Hons) in history from Kirori Mal College in Delhi. I never got around to posting my letter to the head of the history department then but I believe that the message and suggestions remain relevant and apply to a wider audience as well.

Before introducing the text of the letter, may I also take this opportunity to communicate that I am deeply grateful to teachers such as Dr. Firdos Anwar, Prof. Sanjay Verma, Dr. Amrendra Singh, Dr. Manoj Sharma and Mr. Saroj Jha who contributed immensely in shaping my acumen for history in particular and my worldview in general.

Without further ado, the letter is reproduced below*.



The Head of the History Department

Kirori Mal College

University of Delhi

Subject: On How to Revitalize the Significance of the Study of History in the Professional Sphere

I believe that history graduates, just as much as those of "professional" streams, are capable of achieving great importance and success in life. However, upon graduating from KMC and having spent a semester in an MBA course I now face the harsh reality that though the knowledge of a history graduate is deeply appreciated and valued in the "outside world" by those who have an inclination towards the subject, its true potential is rarely harnessed.

I am a strong advocate of looking at the discipline of history in an extremely utilitarian way. In an article titled introspection in Vatayan, the journal of KMC's History Society, last year, I've advocated not for the sheer commercialization of the discipline but for the alignment of the approach by which the knowledge of this subject is used with the trends of the day for the sake of its survival and progress.

The relevance of history remains, but where the subject has lost out is in marketing.

The great Greek historian and general Thucydides is believed to have said that "History is philosophy teaching by example." Indeed, history became a curriculum subject to prepare the administrators of the times through a study of real-life cases in order to hone their decision-making skills. The relevance of history remains, but where the subject has lost out is in marketing.

We are all aware that the research in history progresses at a slow pace in India when compared to international standards. This is not because we lack outstanding academicians –they are necessary but insufficient criterion for research to take place. The ironic fact is that it takes money to open up the avenues for intellect these days.

Now let us look into the problem of shortage of money in this field. The problem starts at a very basic level. A history graduate has mostly a grand total of four prospective avenues to pursue after he has passed his course – professorship, bureaucracy, politics and, for a very few, employment provided by the Archaeological Survey of India. Out of these, the first and last offer the greatest opportunities for personal satisfaction but offer little in the way of monetary benefits. Moreover, it is to be noticed that most these avenues are largely limited to the opportunities provided by the government, which is not a very effective agency for the generation of wealth. So in effect there is not much that a history student can do while staying in India, despite the great problem-solving capabilities that the subject might develop in him.

The simple logic of capitalist society is that any activity can generate wealth if it "adds value" to society (even if it is not so, this is what they teach in MBA institutes at any rate!). If we consider this proposition true for now and spare some thought, then we may come up with a multitude of ways in which history and its students could add value to society.

If employment opportunities for historians increase, so will the value and relevance of the subject.

A history student who has attended a movie making workshop can make and sell authentic documentaries on Indian history, which are a rarity in today's media, which is flooded with inaccurate and highly limited retellings of historical eras and personalities. Even if some research has been done, it is often limited to the work of Western historians who may not hold the most accurate view. Further, might it not be possible for placement cells of colleges to stretch themselves and get recruiters like History Channel and Discovery Channel to see the value in hiring history graduates? History departments could push to organize inter- and intra-college debating and essay-writing competitions on general as well as intellectual history... Who knows how many great theoreticians may be dwelling behind the walls of the university? Who knows how many of them may have the potential of becoming a Karl Marx or Max Weber? Historians who may be interested in developmental studies may gain experience by opening small NGOs with the help of their colleges. They may be recruited by NGOs as full-time professionals. The opportunities are many.

Many of these suggestions may at this moment seem unviable or unrealistic, yet they are possibilities. Maybe a professor or a student might smirk upon reading this article and dismiss it as the utopian idealism of a fresh-from-college youth, but is it so impossible to think of taking baby steps in a new direction?

Of course, it is all easier said than done. Our departments with their limited funds can only do so much. When it gets tough to gain funds for getting 50 copies of an annual journal printed, it is definitely tough to fund a movie-making workshop or even purchase a camera. Yet, we did revive the magazine, didn't we? We may as well go another mile! Ideas spread like fire and we as historians know that fire can be created by the spark of the stones; it doesn't always need fire to create fire!

If employment opportunities for historians increase, so will the value and relevance of the subject. All that is needed is an orientation of the mind towards creating opportunities. In this regard, the historians of today, the ones who are working in our history departments, will be of critical value and I do hope that some of them see the value of these suggestions that I have humbly put forward as a student.

Yours Sincerely,

Arpit Chaturvedi

* Edited for clarity.

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